Currently, women represent only 2% of the maritime industry, while only 8% of employees in engineering are women. This is in stark contrast to the U.K. workforce as a whole, of which women make up 47%.
For many women, entering a sector that’s perceived as a “boy’s club” isn’t always appealing. If a sector looks unwelcoming to women from the outside, it’s unlikely to attract female employees in any role. But this means these workers are potentially missing out on a rich experience, and businesses are losing out on some top female talent. This is especially concerning given the recruitment crisis the engineering sector is facing. With a recruitment gap of up to 186,000 according to Engineering UK, businesses must tap into new candidate pools in order to repair this talent hole.
It’s clear these sectors need to do more to increase their gender equality, and one of the best ways to do that is to promote existing female role models in the industry. We’ve spoken to Abi Thompson, project manager, and Georgia Jones, senior strategic buyer, at subsea engineering company SMD to find out more about their roles and experience in the sector, as well as to get their advice for women new to the sector.
Varying Roles in the Sector
The two women’s roles in the business are varied and completely different. Thompson describes project management as “the umbrella to the operation.” She elaborates: “We make sure the process is right and that there’s communication all the way through. We’re always asking questions, we’re always looking for results. If there’s a problem, where’s the fix?”
Jones' role, meanwhile, focuses around sourcing and onboarding suppliers for SMD’s critical supply chain, as well as identifying the need for new products or technologies. For her, the key part of her role is “Managing high-risk, high-volume, high-value electrical commodities in the business across all projects and divisions.”
Both women have roles that require collaboration across the entire business, meaning they’re well-known and highly valued within SMD. According to Thompson, “Project management is very hands-on. We’re always buzzing around the place and there’s a lot of interaction with the whole team. We oversee the whole process from the sales stage all the way through to delivery and the sea trials.”
For Jones, she collaborates both internally and externally. “I work really closely with the electrical engineering department looking at new solutions, whether that’s new tech or suppliers.”
Both women have successfully progressed in their career since joining SMD. Jones came into the business as an electrical buyer and worked her way up to senior strategic buyer. Thompson began her SMD career in a junior admin role, progressing to associate project manager before eventually being appointed in a full Project Manager role.
Both women had hugely different career paths and entry points into SMD. Following the completion of an admin apprenticeship after what she described as a career “lightbulb moment”, Abi saw the junior admin role advertised. Her father was a group production manager, so she used her network to get the foot in the door. From that point, she said, “I worked my way up the ranks with hard graft.” Her career path is not one we hear about often due to how her education panned out. “I left school with no GCSEs. I’ve got nothing on paper, but now I’m a project manager and I smash it.
“I didn’t know which way I wanted to go in my career, which I think most people don’t know at 16. I got into a good market at a good time, worked hard and proved myself in the business.” Thanks to SMD, Thompson has now completed a foundation degree in business management and is currently studying a top-up degree – something she never thought she’d achieve. This is an inspiring message to any young women who haven’t taken traditional routes through education.
Jones came to SMD from the manufacturing sector, so maritime engineering was a new environment to her. “I’d just had a baby and was looking for something new. I’d been in purchasing supply chain for years, and the advert was out there at the right time. This was completely different – what SMD does is completely different in general.” Jones' vast experience in the supply chain meant she was able to hit the ground running in this new, exciting sector.
These different experiences highlight the fact that there’s no right way to get into a new career or sector. Using a network can be beneficial to getting your foot in the door and rising through the ranks to prove yourself. Equally, Georgia proves that you don’t need to be in the same sector your whole career to add value to a business.
The Most Rewarding Part of the Roles
Although they’re in very different roles, there’s a common theme in what both Jones and Thompson find most rewarding in their jobs. According to Jones, “The obvious area for me is when you get to the end of a project, you look back and see the cost-savings in your area for the commodity.”
Abi agrees that seeing a project come to fruition is fulfilling. “For me, it’s when you see the product go into production and everything comes together. All the work you’ve put in at the front end starts paying off. The materials are right, parts are right, it’s slotting together, and you start seeing something being built.”
Nurturing a relationship from start to finish is also important to Jones. She says: “Finding a new supplier and working with them from the tender all the way through to approved status, developing a relationship, and seeing them integrated into SMD as a valued member of the supply chain is really rewarding.”
Advice to Women in Engineering
Unsurprisingly, there are times when Jones and Thompson are the only women in the room. So, how do they cope with that? According to Jones, “I was told to not be afraid to speak up and get your opinion across. Engineering is male-dominated and you’re quite often the only female in a room full of men. Don’t be afraid to put your opinions across and challenge other people’s views. You’ll also have your views challenged, so you can provide a good argument for them.”
Thompson says SMD has provided a supportive environment that has allowed her to progress in her career. She’s also supported as a mother of a young child who is juggling higher learning. She said: “I’ve got my daughter, assignments to write, and projects to kick off, and the SMD team is so good about it. One day, when I was struggling, my manager told me I’d be able to do my hours whenever I could, giving me some important flexibility.”
These women’s experiences in a male-dominated industry show there’s no one right way to approach a career in maritime and engineering. Thompson left school without GCSEs but, by using her network and working incredibly hard once she’d secured a role, she has risen through the ranks into a highly demanding role, as well as taking on an apprenticeship and a degree. Jones used her vast experience in multiple stages of the supply chain to adapt to her role in a new environment. Her advice is important: in a male-dominated industry, don’t be afraid to speak your mind. And don’t be afraid to enter a brand-new industry. In order to achieve gender equality in these industries, we need more trailblazers like Thompson and Jones.