Women in Chemical Engineering

Chemical Engineering as a discipline and a profession in the UK and Europe was dominated by males in its early history but this has been steadily changing since the 1950s and 60s.

Although the number of women applying for chemical engineering courses was very small initially, today, in the U.K over one third of all Aston University new graduate chemical engineers are women and these graduates are usually successful in securing permanent employment within six months of graduating.

Women chemical engineers are no longer the novelty they once were but a welcome addition to the profession. Within industry, women chemical engineers can be found across all aspects of operations including: oil exploration, production, research, refining, planning, design and commissioning, manufacturing and marketing.

The Salters’ Institute of Industrial Chemistry is a 604 year old, well-established organisation which offers 8 prizes annually to final-year undergraduates studying at British Universities, who expect to obtain an Honours degree in Chemical Engineering or Chemistry and who intend to take up posts in the UK chemical and chemical engineering industry.

These prizes are highly prestigious and are awarded on the basis of the student’s potential ultimately to occupy a leading position in the UK’s chemical industry.

Two of our women chemical engineering graduates have had the honour of winning one of these prizes: Cathy Jones (1990) and Paula Sakoshansky (1992).

Ruth Pennell joined Unilever in 1991 as a Environmental Engineer after graduating from Aston University with a BEng in Chemical Process Engineering.

In her first 18 months, Ruth undertook training alongside placements and assignments with operating companies within the UK and in Europe, before being appointed to her first management role.

"A large part of my workload is concerned with controlling water pollution at manufacturing sites around the world".

Similarly, Siobhan McErlean graduated from Aston in 1991 with a BEng in Chemical Process Engineering. She joined SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals as a process engineer and worked on a multi-purpose chemical plant which produces side chains for the manufacture of different types of penicillin.

"My role comprises both day-to-day maintenance of the plant and project work… From day one I have been involved in the turnarounds, when we switch from making one product to another.

These often require major changes such as blanking off certain lines, modifying pipework and adjusting control parameters. The position gives me the best of both worlds, plenty of responsibility and scope to use my initiative.."

A more recent graduate, Julie Williams, joined Kimberly-Clark after graduating with a BEng in Chemical Engineering in 1995 and became responsible for process engineering in a manufacturing site after just two-and-a-half years’ work experience.

"My first job, at Sealand Mill, didn’t even involve much chemistry. I was responsible for planning and installing all sorts of machinery, from battery bays to on-line case packers and printers. But I still had a really good time!"

These are just three examples of the many women who are now employed and practising as chemical engineers. Chemical engineering is a fascinating and challenging profession.

As one of the most pervasive branches of engineering, it offers diversity and has an impact in virtually all aspects of life. Chemical engineers play key roles in the chemicals, oil, water and food industries and increasingly, these key roles are being filled by women.

Other engineering disciplines such as mechanical engineering, electrical and electronic engineering, civil engineering and manufacturing engineering have similar stories to tell of their women engineers. Opportunities are available for both men and women within engineering and the variety of jobs is enormous.

Engineering is creative and involves judgement, scientific understanding, risk taking, working in teams and facing exciting challenges. Companies today are looking for the right blend of skills and attributes and

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