Welcome to the POWERful Women Case Study for International Women in Engineering Day 2022. We are delighted to feature Karen Anne Hutton, an engineer working at the leading edge of business and technical innovation in the UK renewable energy sector.
Karen Anne is Head of Repowering and Life Extension (UK&I) at RES, a global company active in onshore and offshore wind, solar, storage and transmission & distribution and at the forefront of the industry for over 40 years. A graduate in Civil Engineering, Karen Anne has worked in a number of roles since she joined RES in 2001, including new service implementation, continuous improvement and Head of Innovation & Optimisation.
What job do you do?
I work for RES, the world’s largest independent renewable energy company and have done since I graduated in 2001 – it’s like my second family! I was inspired to work in a sustainable industry that is constantly pushing the boundaries and innovating. It’s an exciting sector to be part of, and one that constantly challenges and inspires me.
In my current role, I’m focussed on supporting our clients explore the end-of-life opportunities for their renewable assets. The first wind farm in the UK was built in 1991 and with an increasing number of projects reaching the end of their design life, we need to explore opportunities to extend their operational life and/or repower them to support the country’s decarbonisation targets. A new and expanding area, it’s exciting to be working on projects that I remember from the early days of my career. I just hope I’m retired before they come back round a third time!
Outside of work, I’m a wife and mother of two primary school children. I love the outdoors and enjoy camping, hiking, walking and cycling with the family.
Tell us about your background
I have a first class MEng in Civil Engineering from Heriot-Watt University, and came to RES as a summer student. I enjoyed being challenged and working with such intelligent people who all shared a sense of purpose – the desire to do something positive for the environment. When the opportunity arose to join after graduation, I explored my options, but knew in my heart I wanted to work for this fantastic company.
I spent the first ten years of my career in RES’ Group Technical team, analysing data and predicting wind speeds for onshore and offshore projects. My engineering degree gave me transferable skills and a strong foundation (pun intended) – from problem solving and analytical skills, to project management and communications.
After my daughter was born, I took a sideways step into our development team where I managed the implementation of RES’ Local Electricity Discount Scheme (LEDS). An innovative scheme even today, LEDS pays an annual discount on the electricity bills for people living near wind farms. Making those first payments in 2014 remains one of my career highlights.
After my son was born, I took another sideways step and worked in business transformation, helping RES innovate to reduce the cost of renewable energy. This gave me exposure to wider aspects of the business and people working across RES globally.
Repowering and life extension started off as a new initiative we were exploring in our team. It’s now a key part of the group’s strategy, with the focus shifted to implementation and delivery. Every day is a school day (because every project is different), but the future is bright and exciting.
What has been your personal experience of climbing the career ladder?
There was one woman to every ten men on my university course but I’m glad to say that for me, gender wasn’t an issue. When I started at RES there were few women, but we supported each other and I was lucky to have line managers who encouraged me. Renewables remains male-dominated, but it’s great to see the proportion of women increase and the balance start to shift.
Having said that, early in my career I did experience bias as the only woman in the room. I was expected to take minutes, make coffee and clear meeting rooms, and people often assumed I didn’t understand computers or technical points. Even now when the meeting chair asks for someone to take minutes, I sit on my hands to see if others will volunteer first. However, I’m pleased to say this culture is changing. I’m proud to be an active member of RES’ Global Gender Affinity Network which aims to ensure that all employees are able to fulfil their personal and professional potential and are not disadvantaged because of their gender.
The challenges I have faced have been more personal. As a working mother, striking a perfect work/life balance has always seemed like an unobtainable ideal and I felt permanently guilty that neither aspect of my life was getting enough focus. However, a woman I met recently on a leadership course said she believed there is no perfect balance and your work/life balance will (and should) change with time. There will be times when you need to focus more on home (e.g. when the children are smaller) and times when you need to focus more on work (e.g. when starting a new role). That’s ok, and indeed we should embrace it. It really helped me make peace with myself and it’s a lesson everyone, including companies, can learn.
What skills do you think engineers bring to the energy sector and in particular to the energy transition and innovation?
Engineers bring problem solving skills and the ability to get things done. We are practical by nature and have an eye for detail, combined with important interpersonal skills like communication and people management. This creates well rounded skillsets that mean engineers are in demand across the energy sector – both in traditional “engineering” roles, and in more applied roles like mine.
Do you think female engineers bring anything different/special in particular?
It might sound like a stereotype, but from my experience, female engineers bring empathy and people skills, and the ability to consider interactions as part of a holistic view. They look at problems with a different lens, and that brings something special.
That said, we all have unique approaches and it’s that diversity of opinion, experience and knowledge that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Diversity of all kinds – gender, age, race, sexuality and disability – is important because only through encouraging difference in thought, can we innovate and truly excel.
What kind of support have you found helpful in advancing your career?
Visible female role models without a doubt. The women I have worked with in RES have been role models for me – watching their careers develop to senior levels in the business, how they juggle work and motherhood, and push the boundaries to the benefit of those following in their footsteps.
As well as good line managers, I’ve also had a network of supportive friends and colleagues. They’ve challenged me when I’ve been overly critical of myself, helped me understand my strengths and weaknesses, highlighted opportunities they think I’d be good at, and encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and learn.
What advice would you give to aspiring women in the energy sector, and to female engineers in particular?
Firstly, grasp opportunities that come your way – it might be a sideways career move that gives you the opportunity to develop new skills, or an internship that allows you to understand the different roles in a company and identify what interests you most.
Secondly, build a network of contacts both internally and externally – in my 20 years in the industry I’ve got to know a lot of great people. It’s helped me develop my career, expand my horizons and develop new ideas.
Lastly, focus on what you can do, not just what you can’t (yet) – this is especially true when it comes to considering new roles. Don’t be put off because you can’t tick off every requirement in the job description. Remember this is a wish list and recruiters aren’t expecting to find someone who’ll tick every box. Instead, focus on what you can do and how you will upskill yourself to cover the remaining elements of the role once in post.
What are your views on the current state of play regarding gender diversity in the UK energy sector and opportunities for female engineers to progress in the industry?
Whilst I have seen much progress over the last 20 years, we still have a long way to go to secure true gender diversity in the UK energy sector. It’s important because these women bring skills, experience and knowledge that we risk losing to other industries if we don’t give female engineers the opportunity to progress.