Following the recent publication of our free-to-download eBook Get Girls Into STEM, we’ve been reaching out to women working in science, technology, engineering and maths who are helping to challenge the male-dominated industries so that we can have a little chat. Recently, we got in touch with Niloofar. After graduating from South Bank University, Niloofar worked a little in Bahrain before moving back to England and joining Thames Water. Since then, she has worked in various roles in the company and has some great stories and thoughts to share.
Hi Niloofar! Thanks for taking time out of your day to chat to me.
I’m going to start by asking a few questions about your career, and then go on to wider questions about the industry… So, when did your interest in engineering begin?
I studied Chemical and Process Engineering at South Bank University in London. But prior to that I did a course in Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at Manchester University. I didn’t really enjoy that so I did a bit of research about what else was available to me and that’s when I started reading about engineering and the opportunities that are available to me with an engineering degree. So then I applied for Chemical and Process Engineering and got a place at London South Bank.
Are you glad you changed courses?
I absolutely loved the engineering course – creating mass balances, building process models and learning how processes such as chemical refinery actually worked in real life. I did something completely different to what I was initially doing [laughs].
I really enjoyed doing my dissertation too, which was on Ammonia production from natural gas. Once I submitted this, an opportunity came along for a Summer placement in Bahrain in a petrochemical company that was producing Ammonia from natural gas. It was a very short placement – about three to four months – but gave me the opportunity to put my learnings into practice.
How did you find the placement?
It was really interesting to go and see how the industry and the lifestyle is different abroad than the UK. I think that it was a very valuable experience.
How was the industry different?
Female engineers were not actually going out on the plant carrying out work, they were mainly just working from the offices. So they were doing the theory work – doing the calculations and making the decisions – but they were not actually going out on the plant. That was very interesting [laughs]! Whereas here, in the UK, female engineers are working outside and not just being managers – female engineers are in the operational field as well.
But I still got the opportunity to visit the site and the processes. It was the first time I actually saw the process equipment. Before, I was designing a heat exchanger, for example, but I’d never actually seen a heat exchanger. So that’s why I found that really interesting and valuable.
Once the placement finished, what did you do?
I came back and started looking for jobs in the UK. I started looking at different industries including the water industry, the oil & gas industry, electricity, different consultants… It’s difficult when it comes to the stage of finding a real job; it’s really tough because the competition is high out there. There are some good graduate schemes that different companies are offering, but it’s really difficult to get into them so I spent months looking for a position. At the end, I got accepted in a few. I did some research and then accepted the graduate scheme at Thames Water. The location was also very local to me.
What was the graduate scheme like at Thames Water?
So, the scheme was for 18 months. I joined earlier than everyone else because I was available to start – the scheme started in September, but I joined in March 2016. The graduate scheme had two placements. First I had was working with operations, so that was the opportunity for me to learn about how the water treatment works. This was an area that I hadn’t come across before so everything was fresh and new. So I was thrown in the deep end to pick it up quickly and deliver.
I think it was the most difficult part to be put in operations because there aren’t many females in operations and when you just come into the business it’s really difficult to get people to hear you because they think you’re not experienced because you’re not a man. That was the difficult part for me because I had to blend in somehow. I had to build a good relationship with the guys onsite and that took months and months. But I picked that up and managed to create a really good working relationship with them and that worked well both ways. I learnt the processes, how we overcome the challenges, the opportunities that we have onsite. It was really good – I created a couple of tools for those on site to be able to help them with their job on a daily basis.
What did your second placement entail?
As I am looking to get my Chartership, I thought the second placement would be a good opportunity for me to get experience in an area that is not engineering so I went into strategy in a team called London 2100. It was essentially a newly built team that was looking into the future of the wastewater assets in 2100. It is very long-thinking and completely different to my first placement which was really good because I got to understand the strategy side of the business; how the business side is run, how we model things, where the money comes from. The kind of stuff you wouldn’t necessarily understand in an engineering environment. Engineering is more short-term and problem-solving the now or the next five years, whereas this was looking into the far, far future. I was the Stakeholder Engagement Lead for the team which meant that I came in contact with external and internal stakeholders which taught me a lot.
Following that, it was the end of the graduate scheme so I had to look for a permanent position. I wanted to go back into engineering, so I got myself a position in eight20 as a Process Engineer.
It’s really good. Really different. I think my experience in operations is actually helping me in the role. I am working on a project which is looking at capacity and flow of sewage treatment and produce process models for each site. It’s just what I wanted to do… So here I am [laughs]
Wow, you’ve done a lot in a small space of time. So, what’s the plan for the future career-wise?
As I mentioned, I’m planning to become a charted Chemical Engineer, and I will be looking to gain the competences I need in my future roles. Within the next 3 years, I will be looking to gain experience in areas such as project management and the commercial side of the business to support my current technical expertise.
Niloofar and the industry
You briefly mentioned when going through your career both in and outside the UK – how have you found being a woman in the industry?
Um… [pauses] It’s… [pauses] It’s not as easy as being a man, to be honest with you. We are working in an industry where 85-90% of people you work with are male.
Yeah, it’s a lot…
Yeah, it’s a lot. Sometimes I find myself sitting in a meeting room with 15-20 of us and I am the only female in the room. It’s not the easiest thing because you get the feeling that everyone is looking at you. So it’s tough, but it’s dependent on the area and the people you are working with. You just have to work on those relationships. I feel like I need to put in more effort and energy for my voice to be heard.
Do you feel like you have to prove yourself a little bit more?
Sometimes… I do need to put in extra effort.
What was it like during education? Was that male-dominated too?
It’s interesting because we had more females doing Chemical Engineering in our course; I think females are attracted to Chemical Engineering these days. Whereas other courses, like Mechanical, Civil, Electrical Engineering, you would hardly see any females in them – or maybe a ratio of 3 women to 20 men.
What advice would you give to girls wanting to go into STEM or engineering?
Don’t give up. It might seem hard to start with but, at the end of the day, if it’s something that you enjoy you have to come in strong and prove to yourself that you can do it.
A few random questions
You seem very busy which is great – but how do you unwind from work?[laughs] You’ll be surprised to hear that I think shopping is the way. I also go to the gym after work. Sometimes it’s difficult to find the time to do it but I think it’s really important to have that personal and work life balance and so I try to get to the gym as often as I can.
And, yeah… shopping.
Retail therapy is good.[laughs] There you go, you said it!
What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t in engineering? Is there anything else that took your fancy when you were going?
I would probably want my own business. I don’t know what that would be, but that’s what I would be looking into.
It was a pleasure chatting with you, Niloofar. We wish you all the best in your career. And keep going with that retail therapy!