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First among equals: BP‎’s women engineers

Release date:
21 June 2019
From dismantling the lights in a dolls’ house to dreaming big and aiming high, these women knew from a young age that engineering was the career for them. To mark International Women in Engineering Day, BP Magazine highlights five BP women, past and present, who have achieved some pretty impressive firsts in this fiercely competitive field
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On 4 December 1967, Frances Lewis made BP history – she became the organization’s first female engineer.


Lewis worked as a scientific assistant in the National Physical Laboratories in the UK before studying for a BSc in engineering at Bath University of Technology. She went on to join BP’s pipelines and terminals division of the engineering department in London. 


Before joining BP, Lewis spent a year doing voluntary service at Khartoum University in Sudan, where she taught physics to first-year students during the day and held individual tuition sessions in the evening. Her days were long but she was given 45 days’ holiday to compensate for this. Rather than spend her annual leave in the familiar surrounding of Khartoum, however, she explored the rest of Sudan, covering thousands of miles by bus, Land Rover and ‘suk truck’ – an adapted British truck that was a typical mode of transport in Sudan. 


Lewis was later involved with laying the underwater pipeline from the Forties oilfied in the North Sea to the Cruden Bay terminal, which was particularly challenging due to the location and size of the pipeline. She was the only woman to work on the project.

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Jalilova is the first engineer in her family, having graduated with a BA in chemical engineering from the Azerbaijan State Oil Academy.


“I wanted to be an engineer with a chemistry dimension. I like both disciplines, but I enjoy engineering more, so this was my main motive in choosing my occupation,” she says.


Jalilova joined BP in 1998 and has worked in engineering projects both offshore and at the Sangachal terminal, where she received great support from her team leaders over the years. “It all helped me to realize that female engineers could perform to the same level and gain the same recognition as their male colleagues.”


And, she certainly has. Now a team leader herself, Jalilova won an annual AGT region engineering award in recognition of her team work, her excellence and her passion for delivery.


Asked what advice she would give to other female engineers, she says: “Set up career goals and keep on delivering. In terms of experience, I would suggest not getting stuck in the same place or in the same team. The more experience you can get through different positions and working in different teams, the better results you will achieve.”

Professor Dame Ann Dowling

Professor Dame Ann Dowling is no stranger to achieving firsts. In 1993, she became the first female professor in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering – fitting recognition for a lifelong dedication to the subject. 


As a child she was fascinated with how things worked, taking her bike apart aged six, and even dismantling the electric lights in her dolls’ house. She went on to become a world authority on combustion and acoustics and has held visiting posts at MIT and at Caltech.


As well as her role on the BP board, she chairs the organization’s technical advisory council.


In 2014, she was chosen to lead the UK’s influential Royal Academy of Engineering – a role she still holds today.


At the time of her election, she said: “There is a growing recognition of the vital importance of engineering in addressing the many challenges that face society.”

An early rejection would turn out to be the catalyst for one of the most successful careers in science.


As a student in the Seventies, Dame Angela applied for a summer work experience placement in a plastics factory making radio parts, only to receive a letter saying ‘it is felt the position would be better suited for a young man.’ Initially shocked and disappointed (“How ludicrous to make a decision based on gender? This was meant to be the age of liberation. It was more like the dark ages,” she says), she remained determined to make her career in industry. 


Forty years on and she’s more than achieved her goal, having held diverse international leadership roles across BP's Upstream and Downstream as well as being non-executive director of Severn Trent, a FTSE 100 company. Today, as head of Downstream Technology, she is responsible for technology across BP’s petrochemicals, refining, fuels and lubricants businesses. And as BP’s chief scientist, she is also accountable for developing strategic insights from advances in science and managing technology capability in BP.  Most recently Dame Angela became a member of BP's executive team.  


She also finds the time to promote STEM careers, particularly to young women. “We need more role models to be visible as well. I’m always surprised by the number of women who approach me in our offices who say how important it is to see another woman at the top of her profession. I find it very humbling,” she says.


In 2018, Dame Angela was given the Energy Institute's Cadman Award, an award presented to an individual for their outstanding and significant service to the oil industry.

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Dena Hegab wanted to be an engineer ever since she was little. As someone who loves maths and physics, she knew this was an area where she could make a difference. She went on to graduate with a degree in petroleum and energy engineering from the American University in Cairo before joining the BP Egypt Upstream Challenge programme in 2013.


One of Hegab's first roles involved working with 179 men on a rig in the Mediterranean Sea. “The challenge was not the working hours, the rotational schedule, or a tough working environment. It was the mindset," she says.


“There was a noticeable difference between myself and my male peers at first. I felt people would approach them rather than me. So, I took the initiative to get to know my colleagues. I approached them instead.”


Hegab wanted to set an example for her sisters – and others out there. “You decide what you want to be and what you’re capable of. Do not wait for anyone’s approval,” she says. “This field is male-dominated simply because it’s currently occupied by men. However, if more girls join in it will become less of a challenge. With the right character, guts and mindset, you can do whatever you want.”

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