On June 23, 2021 Prima marks International Women in Engineering Day by celebrating the achievements of women in engineering. Claire Woods, Prima’s Operations Director and an engineer herself shared with us some of her experiences, advice and inspiration.
What do you do at Prima and can you tell us a bit about your career path?
At Prima I am currently the Operations Director but transitioning into the role of Managing Director. This requires me to have full responsibility for all operational activities at Prima, whilst working with the board to develop Prima’s growth strategy. It is a very demanding but rewarding role as I have a direct influence into the day to day running of the business but also in deciding how to improve the business to deliver our strategic objectives. I started my career as a sponsored engineering student with IBM at the age of 16, then I joined Caterpillar as a graduate Engineer before moving into Production Management. My early career in large corporate businesses gave me a good grounding for understanding how business can be done well. Later in my career I chose to leave the bureaucracy of a large corporation to work in Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) which I prefer due to the speed of change and agility that we can offer our customers.
What inspired you to go into engineering?
From a young age I was inspired by my grandfather who was also an engineer and who I perceived could fix anything. I’ve always enjoyed learning how things worked and have an inherently curious mind. I think I decided to pursue an engineering career when I was about 12 but initially my focus was on apprenticeships as my family were unable to fund my studies. After sitting my preliminary Higher Grades (Scottish equivalent of A-Levels) my predicted grades were high and a teacher at school encouraged me to consider university, suggesting that I could fund it with student loans. So, at the age of 16 I started studying at Strathclyde University in Glasgow for a Master’s Degree in Manufacturing Sciences and Engineering. After starting my degree, I was offered sponsorship with IBM so was able to apply my learning whilst I studied, with added support and developmental training. This allowed me to experience different areas of engineering before I graduated and by the time I graduated, I was very clear in my own mind that I wanted to work in manufacturing.
What challenges have you encountered and how have you overcome them?
Working in a very male dominated environment has had its struggles, especially earlier in my career when I was managing a team of men that had worked in the company longer than I had lived. At times it has been hard to be taken seriously and I often feel that I have had to work harder than my male counterparts to gain the same level of acceptance and respect. Even nowadays, stereotypes are still prevalent, such as during a visit to a trade show where all the answers to technical questions asked by me were directed to a male colleague. Whilst in the past this frustrated me and affected my confidence, nowadays I am able to brush it off.
Can you please share with us any secrets of success or tips for young female engineers?
Starting any new career can be daunting and none is without its difficulties. I think the world in general is becoming more aware of the benefits to diversity, however, experiences of this within the workplace differ greatly depending upon the culture, not just for female engineers but for any group that would be considered a minority. My advice would be to be confident in your abilities and to raise concerns if you feel you are not being treated fairly or respectfully. Early in my career I had several issues with this, on one occasion my manager that was the instigator, calling me a “stupid little girl” in team meetings and other derogatory terms relating to being female. When I raised this issue, I was told that I was too sensitive, therefore, I was too scared to escalate it further for fear of repercussions or a reputation that would affect my future career. Other advice would be to be aware of your comfort zone and regularly challenge yourself to push yourself beyond it. Also, take opportunities when they are offered, nothing needs to be forever and in the unlikely event you don’t find yourself enjoying your new situation, don’t worry, there will always be further opportunities to try something different.