31 Jan Emma Harrison, Business Leader: Systems Integration, Energy Systems Catapult
What job do you do?
My role at Energy Systems Catapult is to provide engineering and technical leadership across a range of energy-related challenges and projects. Key to this is engagement with stakeholders and leading multidisciplinary teams to deliver transformational projects – projects that create effective ways to decarbonise our energy system and deliver on the UK’s Net Zero commitment. This involves a whole system approach, considering how the laws of physics, markets, people behaviours and societal changes can be considered in an integrated way to shape and facilitate transformation.
I enjoy working in such a diverse organisation full of amazing people with a huge range of skills, expert knowledge and shared passion. I feel privileged that I have an opportunity to make a difference and improve people’s lives, whilst doing interesting things and solving challenging problems.
I love that there is no ‘typical day’ in my role. Every day is different, bringing new challenges and the opportunity to engage with interesting people to solve some of the biggest challenges of our time. In a single day I can be involved in discussions as far-ranging as UK policy for the creation of the blueprint for Net Zero, energy pricing and flexibility markets to the potential role of small modular nuclear reactors, how much offshore wind we should install and the decarbonisation of domestic heating.
Tell us a bit about your background
As a child, my favourite toys were Meccano and electric experiment kits – I was always fascinated by engineering. I wanted to understand how things work and then apply this to create useful and interesting things to make people’s lives better. I ignored my teachers’ careers advice (“You’re top of the school, you can study anything – why would you study engineering?”) and, supported by my parents, I studied Electrical Engineering, graduating with a First Class degree in 1987. I become a Chartered Engineer in 1996 and completed an MBA with distinction in 1999.
My first job was at the Power Research Institute, leading the development of innovative power transformer technology. After that my career took an interesting non-linear route through a variety of roles across the power, defence and nuclear industries, including Engineering Manager, Project Manager, Global R&D Manager, Head of New Product Development and Strategy Manager and progressing up to Head of Business Development, Project Director and Managing Director. I was fortunate to work for some of the world’s leading engineering companies – ABB, Rolls Royce and BAE Systems.
I represented the UK in a range of European innovation and R&D working groups including the team that created the EU Waterborne technology platform, which established a continuous dialogue between waterborne industries like shipbuilders, maritime equipment manufacturers and service providers, universities and research institutes and EU institutions.
I have been a Mentor for the Institution of Engineering and Technology for more than ten years, which allows me to give something back by supporting other engineers in their careers.
What has been your personal experience of climbing the career ladder?
I have become used to being in male-dominated environments since university, where girls were outnumbered by boys by about 50 to 1 – and that continued throughout my career. I was usually the only woman in the team or attending events and meetings. A particularly interesting challenge was when I was promoted to my first Engineering Manager job, as a young woman just back from maternity leave. I inherited an all-male engineering department and most of them were old enough to be my dad! That shaped my management style but also forced me to develop confidence and learn to deal with prejudices and resistance to a ‘woman boss’. It seems to have worked as several people over the years have told me that I was the best boss they ever had.
Overall, most of my experiences have been positive. I had great relationships with the teams I was leading either as a line manager or as project lead. I quickly developed a reputation and track record for delivering complex and challenging projects on time, on budget and building great relationships with internal and external stakeholders, which supported my career progression.
What kind of support have you found helpful in advancing your career?
I was fortunate to have some very supportive bosses and I have benefited from both informal and formal mentoring. I once read that people join companies and leave bosses, and since then I tried to ‘join bosses and teams’. In other words, I have considered who I would work with to be as important as the company and the role, if not more so.
Also, taking a non-linear approach to my career-changing industries, companies, locations and engaging with a wide range of stakeholders and international working groups – I have learned a huge amount and developed a wide range of skills. I have a better understanding of different cultures and ways of working as a result.
What advice would you give to aspiring women in the energy sector?
The energy sector requires creativity and the ability to think outside the box and explore different options with an open mind, combined with great organisational and management skills, often multitasking and trading off between conflicting requirements. Women bring these skills and greatly improve the performance and leadership of teams.
So my advice would be to pursue your dreams and don’t let prejudices stop you from fulfilling your potential. The energy industry offers great careers that women can excel in.
What are your views on the current state of play regarding gender diversity in the UK energy sector?
I think that gender diversity has improved since I started my engineering career more than 30 years ago, but it is far from being ‘good’. It is not quick and easy to fix. We need to address root cause issues, including encouraging young girls to believe that sciences and maths are something they can be good at and that can offer amazing careers. We then need to encourage girls to study STEM subjects and pursue careers in energy.
And when they start working, we need to support them to fulfil their full potential, providing mentors and role models. There also needs to be the recognition that, in general, women are less likely to push for promotion and may need encouragement and confidence building to believe that there is no ‘glass ceiling’.
We will know that we have succeeded in addressing gender diversity when there is no need to discuss it. Until then, we have to take a whole system approach.
If Emma’s story resonates with you and you would like to enquire about being mentored by her, complete the application form here, mentioning your interest in Emma Harrison as a potential mentor.