An interview with Dame Judith Hackitt

8th March 2016

Today is International Women's Day (#InternationalWomensDay #IWD2016), and to celebrate we decided to put a chemical engineering leading lady in the spotlight - Dame Judith Hackitt.

Judith Hackitt, who was IChemE's second female president (2013-2014), has had an eventful 2016 so far. The Chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), was made Dame in the New Year Honours, and has recently announced her new appointment as Chair at the EEF, the manufacturers organisation.

We sat down with her to look back on her career so far, and get her perspective on the gender debate, and the future of chemical engineering.

Thanks for joining me today Judith. You have had quite an impressive career. I'm sure you're a bit sick of this question but what was it like to be made a Dame in the New Year's Honours List?

Well on a day-to-day basis it doesn't make any difference, I'm not using the title anywhere and everywhere and insisting people call me Dame Judith! I was at home on the day the letter arrived, it was first of all a big surprise but also a massive honour. It's hard to describe but you feel like it's something special. I really am genuinely honoured to be offered this, and it was a delight to write back and say yes, of course I'd accept.

So it was completely unexpected?

Yes, well the whole thing is done in complete secrecy. You don't know that you've been nominated, or indeed who nominated you. So I still don't know who or how many people nominated me for the honour.

It's a process I've been through before, because i got my CBE in 2006. I'm so looking forward to going to the palace again - it just really is a lovely day.

Well good luck with it all - it sounds very exciting!

It is! Thank you.

You did a lot for the Institution when you were the second female President. Your presidential address talked about when you were at Imperial College in the 70's and one of four female chemical engineering students. What made you want to study chemical engineering in the first place? And was it a shock when you went there and was so outnumbered?

I wanted to be a science teacher, and had always wanted to be. I thought if I was going to be a good science teacher, I had to be able to explain the context of the science. It can't just be abstract, you have to be able to explain to people why science is important and how it can be used. So, I happened to go on a one-day course at Birmingham University, to find out what chemical engineering was about. And I just thought this is for me, this is the sort of course that will help me understand and would help me be able to put science into context. So, I went home and spoke to my Dad, who was a mechanical engineer, and he said why not, its a great thing to do. He didn't talk me into it but he did support me - which is more than I can say for the school!

The school were very much like "No you can't do that, girls don't do chemical engineering." And I just said "Well, yes I am!"

But it wasn't a shock that it was so male-dominated when I went to University. I went to a co-ed grammar school and in those days it was mostly boys who did science and maths. All through my A-Level's I was either the only girl, or one of two girls doing those subjects. So it wasn't any different really!

Did you feel like you were dissuaded from doing STEM subjects at school?

No, the school thought it was odd that I wanted to be a chemical engineer. But they didn't try to dissuade me from doing those subjects at A-Level.

Their reasons for not wanting me to do do chemical engineering aren't too dissimilar from today. Teachers are ill-informed about engineering. They don't know what it is and they have pre-conceived notions that it's dirty, its greasy, its all these things which its not. And they say "No, that's not for girls." You still find that even now, forty years later.

Do you think that's a problem? Part of what IChemE does is try to engage the public with the profession - but do you think it's also down to teachers and other authority figures who are talking to kids about their careers, to know a bit more?

There's an awful lot of people out there trying to do a lot to change the perception of engineering - and it's all well intentional. My personal view is that we are creating a lot of noise, and not having the impact that we ought to be having. Part of that is because there are too many of us saying different things, we're not getting a consistent message over.

All of that said, I think IChemE's whynotchemeng campaign stands out as being successful, because of the way it has encouraged boys - and girls - into chemical engineering. The way the figures have gone up since the campaign launched is fantastic. And there is something there, in that campaign, that is so successful, I'm quite disappointed that it hasn't been applied more broadly to encourage people to do engineering more generally.

I think the secret of whynotchemeng is that what it says to people is if you want to make a difference, if you want to change the world, if you want to solve the problems facing this planet, then chemical engineering is the route to doing that. And that's what grabs peoples attention. You are speaking to the personal values and ambitions of young people.

Chemical engineering is quite broad - do you think that appeals to young people?

Without a doubt, I think it's the most flexible or adaptable of all the engineering disciplines and that is hugely attractive.

Do you think women are still held back in STEM industries?

It has improved, but we aren't where we need to be. I think the one thing we must do is to recognise that everyone - men and women - require more flexibility in their careers.

The problem we face today is less about attracting women into STEM industries, but more about keeping them. It has to be to do with the current expectations in terms of mobility. There are still companies out there that expect you to move anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat, and that's not always feasible or practical.

Equally I think it's about growing the confidence of women in that they can manage their own careers. When I graduated I worked for Exxon and the great thing about working for a company like that is that they manage your career for you, in terms of offering you steps on the ladder. When it comes to a point where the next step isn't for you, it's scary to come out of a big organisation like that. The thing I've learnt having moved jobs and moved around organisations is that its not as difficult as you think its going to be, you actually learn a lot from it.

My career has been better because of those many different experiences. But it is intimidating at first to take responsibility for your own career, rather than waiting for your employer to offer you the next step on the ladder.

What can women do better to help themselves in STEM industries? Do you think they are holding themselves back?

Subconsciously I think they are, and I think it's to do with self-confidence.

What's been interesting to me coming into the public sector is that I've seen a lot of the work that has been done within the public sector looking at what causes the imbalance in women in senior positions versus men. The findings have revealed it can be down to subtle things like the way you advertise jobs. A woman's psyche will say "well I can't apply for that because I don't meet all the requirements". A man will look at the same job advert and think "I've got 50% of what they're looking for - I'll give it a go". What that has done within the public sector is cause people to put a great deal of thought into the way jobs are described. There are some very subtle things you can do that makes them more accessible to women.

The other way to tackle the issue is to encourage women to be bolder, have more confidence and to go for it - something that was reinforced to me at the EEF conference. One of the speakers was Karen Brady, and she talked about when she was 23 and she wanted to buy Birmingham City Football Club. She went to her boss, asked him to buy it and she would run it - and he agreed. She just talked about having the confidence, having the determination, if you just keep going, you'll get there. She voiced all the things that I know to be true for women - because I've experienced it.

What advice would you give to your thirteen year-old self, if you could go back in time?

In a sense, I've had to do that for the next generation because I've had two daughters. I advised them to do something you really care about, do something you're passionate about. Your career takes up a large part of life, and the best way to be good at it is to do it with passion and commitment.

Well you are clearly passionate, and that has taken your career to some high places, You have pioneered a number of initiatives at IChemE and are now moving on to be Chair of the EEF. As you reflect back on your time at HSE what have been some key achievements?

Well when I came out of industry I went to the Chemical Industries Association, and I did that because I felt strongly that the chemical industry was not doing a good job at communicating what value the chemical industry gave and contributed to quality of life. I wanted to go there and do a better job at positioning the chemical industry in people's minds.

Now you're moving to become Chair of the EEF, what are your plans while your there? I took a sample size of 12 EEF customers and only one had a female CEO. Is that on your agenda as Chair?

I honestly don't think that it's front and centre of my mind. What matters to me is not about gender equality, it's about diversity. And I think there is a real danger in playing on this 'what we need is more women on boards' debate. It's not. What we need is boards to recognise how important it is to have diversity of thinking. That is what will make them more robust, more resilient - and we need that more than ever in the challenging times we live in right now. If you recognise that need for diversity of thinking, the rest will follow. Women will become more numerous, along with other men who think and act differently from the stereotype that currently populates those boards.

Do you think you have spotted the next female leader?

During my year of president at IChemE, as I went around the world and met a lot of young people, there are some really talented people out there.

I am absolutely sure there will be more female presidents of IChemE in the future because I've met some inspirational young women, currently in the early stages of their chemical engineering career. But I've also met some extremely talented young men, and I'm also confident that some of them will be future presidents of the Institution.

What else would you like to address in your new role at EEF?

If you ask most people what manufacturing in the UK is about right now there is a perception that there used to be a manufacturing industry, and it's now gone. That's so far from the truth it's unbelievable.

The truth is we have some amazing new and exciting manufacturing industries out there. The innovation that is going on is incredible. I'm also on the board for the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and some of the things that come out of that is amazing in terms of new products and innovative processes.

There is a story to be told within UK manufacturing, and we're not telling it. It links right back to getting more people into engineering, because when you tell the story that's what attracts people.

If by that you mean do I believe women have an important role to play in the world, then yes I am.

But for me this whole agenda is about valuing everyone. Valuing everyone for what they can contribute and valuing diversity of contributions. Not having an organisation that is full of clones - by gender, race or anything else. The more diverse the team the better the outcome will be.

Have you ever felt you had to act differently at work to make yourself heard?

Yes in the early stages of my career I did. I felt pressurised to conform to types of behaviour that didn't feel natural.

The time I became most comfortable with being different was when I recognised that it gave me something to offer. I needed to be proud of the fact I could think differently and ask different questions, it would bring something new to the debate.

Have you ever experienced sexism at work? Have you ever had your actions misinterpreted because of gender?

I think there's less of that these days, it's still not completely eradicated though of course.

I've been the minority in a male dominated environment for forty years, so what do you think? Yes, of course I've experienced it.

The thing is, it's about how you deal with it. First of all you have to have a sense of humour about it, if you take it all seriously it will get you down.

Secondly, you have to know where to draw the line. If you draw that line in the wrong place, you will inhibit the culture in the organisation. But if you allow a certain amount of that to go on, and take it in good spirits, but if there comes a point when it goes too far and you make it clear you won't put up with it - then you can do it. But if you call it too soon, then you create that problem. That applies to everything - if you try to clamp down on the organisation with political correctness you will been seen as stifling. You need to know how much freedom to allow around you in the workplace - becoming totalitarian about it won't work.

The campaign theme for International Women's Day is Pledge for Parity. If you could make a pledge right now to achieve gender parity, what would it be? Or, going by what we've discussed today - would you make a pledge at all?

No I wouldn't because it's not about gender parity for me. It's about value diversity across everything. That's the pledge for me.

One of the reasons I say is I would like to think I have never been offered a job because I'm a woman, and I was needed as a number. I've only ever been given opportunities on the basis of merit, and I wouldn't want it any other way. Tokenism is dangerous, and it's dangerous for women because if people think your only there to be a number then no-one is going to take you seriously.

That's why the agenda should be about valuing diversity. From an employee point of view you are there to give what you are good at, not to think and try to behave like a man to get yourself noticed. You are being valued for offering a different perspective and being yourself. And on the other side from an employers point of view, the message is clear - value this person because of who they and because they think differently.

Thank you so much Judith, I know you're a busy lady.

Thank you, it's been nice talking to you.