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Engineering: 'I made it in a job more associated with men'

By Una Brankin

Published 25/06/2015

Early learning: Petra with Erin Baird from St Mary’s College, Londonderry, on a tour of the factory
Early learning: Petra with Erin Baird from St Mary’s College, Londonderry, on a tour of the factory
Kindred spirit: mechanical engineering student Emma Smith

Engineering is still viewed as a male domain, but now more females see it as a career option, as Petra Grashoff, who's based at DuPont's Maydown plant, has proved.

DuPont's first ever female plant manager recognised a kindred spirit when Londonderry student Emma Kelly applied for a job at the Maydown plant.

Dutch boss Petra Grashoff liked the fact that the local engineering student delivered her CV by hand - and that she was undeterred by the male-dominated environment she so badly wanted to be part of.

"Emma left her resume in personally, to the main gate, and I thought that was a very positive way to look for work," says Petra (53). "I phoned her and she came in the next day. She's a very nice looking, feminine girl and I thought, 'Oh my God, how well will she get on in such a male environment?'

"But I was very pleased. "

Emma explained she had been in classes as the only girl among 150 boys, and I thought 'If you can survive that, you'll be okay here."

To mark National Women in Engineering Day this week, Petra took dozens of schoolgirls around the plant to show them the manufacturing process for DuPont's Kevlar, an extraordinarily strong but lightweight fibre that's five times tougher than steel.

It's best known for its use in protective garments and has been used in space missions, deep sea cabling, and also in everyday items like bicycles, skateboards, trainers and helmets.

Mother-of-two Petra has been with DuPont for 26 years. She joined the science company in 1989 as a construction engineer on a holiday job, and has been there ever since. She recently transferred to Derry from the Bristol branch, bringing her husband Cees, who is a retired engineer, and her youngest son, Woulter (20), with her.

Petra's father also worked at DuPont in Belgium, as a chemical engineer, but her interest in the field was first sparked by her uncle, who owned a building firm.

"As a child I always wanted to be a vet - as a family in the Netherlands, we always had dogs and cats and I liked animals," she recalls.

"I studied biology and maths at school, with the intention of becoming a vet, then one day I saw the steel structures on one of my uncle's building company sites and I became fascinated by them. I wanted to know how they were made, so I applied to study civil engineering at university.

"My father was an engineer and he always encouraged me to work. I remember wanting to go to visit my aunt in South Africa and he told me to go and get a job to pay for the flight."

When Petra enrolled in engineering at university, she was one of only four girls on her course.

"The male students treated us as equals - I never encountered sexism at university," she says.

"Engineering is male-dominated, but the outside world has changed a lot, and if there was ever a problem, I always stood up for myself.

"Actually, opportunities for women engineers in the UK are better - there is more diversity."

Both Petra's sons were educated in the UK and Woulter has just finished his accountancy exams. Her eldest, Jerome, has moved back to the Netherlands to work in banking and finance.

Being surrounded by men at home and in work, Petra admits she'll be sad to see Emma leave DuPont in August to finish her studies at the Ulster University.

"She integrated very well - it's a pity she has to leave, but I have another impressive girl here, Diana, from Spain. She came here on her own and has settled extremely well. She has her own flat in the city and is doing very well in Maydown."

Keen to attract more girls to careers in engineering, Petra gives regular talks in school and university campuses, as well as inviting them into the plant.

"Young girls communicate well. They ask more questions about the use of equipment, for example. It's not black and white but they are more open.

"Men want to do it right and want to prove they have done a good job. Women have a more practical approach and aren't so much interested in proving what they can do."

Petra has an office on the factory floor for easy interaction with her team of engineers. Her role is hands-on and endlessly busy, but she makes sure to take regular holidays with Cees (66).

"Moving here was fine for my husband - he has a boat and sails on the River Foyle. I think there is a good work/life balance here - the lifestyle is more relaxed than it is in the Netherlands. It's very crowded there and they are very busy and work-oriented.

"Here, there are not so many people and they make more time for life outside work. Maydown is a 24/7 operation and I'm very busy, but I do find time for cycling and sailing, and we have a very nice garden. I also take regular breaks - sunny holidays and winter sports.

"The only thing is the climate," she adds, with a laugh. "The winter is colder and very dark, with short days, so not much opportunity to sit outside."

As there is a growing shortage of engineers across many fields, the future looks bright for those who choose a career in the industry.

The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10%, while Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead with nearly 30%. Analysts have estimated that the UK will need to double the number of its recruits into engineering to meet demand.

"I'm proof that women can make it to the top in a job more associated with men, so gender should never be a reason someone decides not to pursue a career in engineering," says Petra.

"I would encourage anyone considering engineering to do some research and find out more about what's out there. I did and I have never looked back."

Petra has advice for all the scientifically-minded young women out there.

"Don't be bossy, for a start," she laughs. "My advice to girls interested in engineering as a career would be to take a general degree, say in chemical or electronics and take a look around from there. I studied civil engineering and now work in chemical - there are so many jobs you can do. It's more about the way you learn how to think, than the subject itself.

"Be yourself and don't try to copy others or try to please too much.

"That's good advice for real life, too."

So what made 21-year-old Emma decide to pursue a career in engineering? "When I was growing up, I thought I wanted to be a teacher or just something normal, but I always enjoyed maths and technical stuff at school," she explains. "I did a GSCE in engineering and was hooked from then.

"My careers teacher encouraged me to apply for mechanical engineering at university - in my first year there was only me and another girl among 90 or so fellas, but they were nice.

"I didn't realise DuPont was on my doorstep when I applied for an internship. It was brilliant to find Petra there - she set up a spot for me. I was used to being surrounded by boys from school, when I had to take a history class at a local boys' school.

"I've to go back to uni to finish my degree this year and then I'd like to get a job near home, but than I can travel with. Engineering's good for that." Emma admits her passion for engineering can raise a few eyebrows. "People in general are surprised by what I do - they're full of questions when I tell them," she says. "I was never a tomboy, though. I'm quite a girly girl.

"But I absolutely love it."

Movie star who helped win the war

Famous female engineers and scientists are thin on the ground but the Allied war effort for the Second World War produced a highly distinguished example - straight from the Hollywood studios.

The exquisitely beautiful Austrian-born actress Hedy Lamarr (right) - most famous for her role as Delilah, opposite Victor Mature's Samson - always had a keen interest in applied-science and bored by her acting career, she used her knowledge to create a technology that's now part and parcel of modern communications.

At the start of the Second World War, Lamarr identified the enemy jamming of Allied radio communications as a particular problem and, with composer George Antheil, developed spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology to defeat it.

Though the US Navy did not adopt the technology until the 1960s, the principles of Lamarr's work are now incorporated into modern Wi-Fi, CDMA and Bluetooth technology. This work led to her being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

The story of Lamarr's frequency-hopping spread-spectrum invention was explored in an episode of the Science Channel show Dark Matters: Twisted But True, a series which explores the darker side of scientific discovery and experimentation, which premiered in September 2011. Her story was also featured in the premiere episode of the Discovery Channel show How We Invented the World.

A heavy smoker in her youth, Lamarr died in Casselberry, Florida on January 19, 2000, aged 85, from heart disease. Her son Anthony Loder took her ashes to Austria and spread them in the Vienna Woods, in accordance with her last wishes.

Lamarr was given an honorary grave in Vienna's Central Cemetery in 2014.

Belfast Telegraph

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