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Female engineer returners

23 August 2019
Read here about four female BP engineers who have maintained their careers around having children

With only 6% of the UK’s current engineering workforce comprised of women, and an estimated 22,000 qualified women engineers not returning to the sector after a career or maternity break, enabling them to do so is critical to support a vital seam of talent.

Nathalie Descusse-Brown

Subsea riser and flowline engineer at BP. Mum to Remi (almost three years old) and expecting a second baby this summer

Growing up in France with her electrical engineer father and medical secretary mother, Nathalie was always very inquisitive – “why, why, why?” As she grew up her appetite for problem solving became quite clear which, combined with an analytical mind and an encouraging engineer father, led to the decision to focus on engineering as a career.

With a passion for water and the sea, Nathalie chose to study offshore engineering at Ecole Centrale Marseille, with the last year of her engineering master’s degree spent at Heriot Watt College in Edinburgh.

Qualified as a sub-sea engineer, Nathalie has had a varied career, with roles ranging from an oceanographer and pipelay analysis engineer through to PLET package manager, and became a chartered engineer in 2007. She currently works as a project subsea engineering lead at BP.

After Nathalie joined BP in 2011 she found out she was expecting her first child and was pleased to receive a supportive response when she shared her happy news! Remi arrived in 2012 and, after 10 months maternity leave, Nathalie was keen to get back to the job she is passionate about. Without family around in the UK to help, but enabled by BP’s flexible culture, Nathalie and her husband worked out a schedule between them for dropping and collecting their son from nursery. It is this willingness to be flexible which Nathalie credits with female engineers being able to return to work.

Be firm about what you want and stick to what you agree with your employer.

Elizabeth Padmos

Lead reservoir engineer at BP. Mum to three boys aged 13, 11 and nine years old

Elizabeth’s natural affinity for maths was apparent from a very young age, along with a passion for puzzles which she was also very good at. With an engineer father Elizabeth’s talents were nurtured with regular talk and demonstration of day-to-day engineering concepts, as well as tales from his work as an aeronautical engineer. By primary school she was sure – she wanted to be an engineer.

Following an engineering science degree from Oxford University, Elizabeth did a post-graduate year in Paris at the French Petroleum Institute where she met her husband. On completing her studies, Elizabeth joined BP in Houston where she stayed for three years before taking up a role with BP in Aberdeenshire, Scotland 15 years ago. Today Elizabeth has three sons - Johan (13), James (11) and Matthew (nine).

Of her hectic family life, Elizabeth says: “It is great fun but very time consuming between supervising homework, music practice, standing next to a rugby pitch, running them to clubs, helping out at school... And now they don’t go to bed as early so no downtime in the evenings. Wouldn’t change a thing though! Johan arrived in November 2001 and I took eight months off work after which I returned three days a week with BP’s support (allowing both my husband and I flexibility) and the services of a great local nursery. I subsequently followed this pattern when both our other sons were born – eight months leave before going back to work for three days per week.

Things became tricky when our eldest started school, but again BP proved itself to be very flexible and I now work the same hours but across four days which works with the school day. I consider myself very fortunate – I have an interesting, stimulating, challenging career during the day and then go home to feed the kids!”

Think about your role and be realistic about what you can do around the demands of a family - know when to say no and when to stop.

Ruth Stevens

SCV installation project manager at BP. Mum to Zoe, almost six years old

Watching her physics teacher swing a conker on a string was a defining moment in Ruth’s life, as she realised her fascination with the centrifugal forces at play! A passion for science ignited Ruth, who went on to study physics and, at the suggestion of her A-Level maths teacher, applied to do mechanical engineering at university. During her studies, Ruth was fortunate enough to secure a role at Shell for the ‘year in industry’ that comprised part of her course. Indeed, this was to be a career defining placement, as Ruth enjoyed it so much she realised she may have found her engineering niche.

Post university, Ruth worked for BG, then a specialist company in London as a subsea engineer, travelling to Mexico, Canada, Norway and Rotterdam with her work. Whilst in Mexico she met her husband and together they travelled and worked – her career was flying but then, at the end of 2008 Ruth discovered she was pregnant:

“Becoming a mother was obviously life changing but realising that, and adjusting to it, took some time. I returned to work when my daughter was five months old and after a period realised I needed to be clearer about what I wanted for myself, what I wanted to achieve and not let other people make assumptions on my behalf.

In 2012, I started at BP where I have had fantastic roles, can see a career path and feel supported. I have a role which allows me to deliver flexibly around the demands of the school run."

Ruth’s own advice to other female engineers with a family, or considering starting their own, is:

  • Ditch the guilt – “confirm to yourself what the best balance is for you and don’t be distracted by the opinion of others… this is your family’s choice, and everyone should respect that”.
  • Outsource – “I am in the fortunate position that I can afford help, but I recognise this isn’t the case for everyone. I have a cleaner, a gardener, I use wrap-around care at the school, and I use summer camps over the holidays. Don’t be ashamed. It wasn’t natural for me with a working-class background to have hired help, but I needed it”.
I have both official and unofficial mentors throughout the organisation who offer me great advice.

Kylie Snook

Process design discipline leader, refining and logistics technology. Mum of two boys – Aiden, nine, and Riley, seven years old

Kylie grew up ten minutes away from a refinery near Adelaide, in Australia. With a passion for science and maths at school, her high school chemistry teacher suggested she go on to study chemical engineering which she did, even staying on to complete a PhD in chemical engineering processing (catalysis of exhaust fumes from cars). Following graduation, Kylie joined BP in 1999, as a process engineer at the Kwinana refinery in Perth, Australia. Whilst living in Perth she met Brendan, they married in 2003 and went on to have their two sons – Aiden in 2005 and Riley in 2007.

Talking about how having children affected her professional life, Kylie explains: “The team at Kwinana was half female and the culture of our team was very flexible. I took six months off after Aiden after which I was keen to do something so, with the support of BP and a local nursery, I came back to work one day per week. This then went up to three days per week when Aiden was one years old.

When Riley came along I did exactly the same but, when he was a year old, my husband and I weighed things up and decided it made sense for him to be home full-time. Initially he found this really hard as, whilst he went out to playgroups, for a long time he was the only dad! But that was six years ago and now there are more families making that decision".

The Snooks currently live in the UK and, with the kids both in school now, Brendan works during school hours as a self-employed accountant. Kylie’s key advice to female engineers with a family, or considering starting their own are:

  • Flexibility is key – consider whether going back full-time immediately is actually going to work for you or if some flex in your hours would solve any challenges.
  • Be open-minded about the solutions that ‘might’ work for you and your family.
  • Be true to yourself – be honest about what works for you.
  • Remember there are lots of roles and opportunities in engineering – sometimes you just need to have the courage to explore the possibilities.
I travel frequently with my job and we found working in partnership with each other in this way works really well for us. What we have also found really good is, because we have each had time at home with the children, we understand what being a full time parent is like!

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