8 March 2024 Employee Spotlight, Sustainability, Tech Talks

Empowering women in STEM: Q&A with Charlotte Gregory, Head of Sustainability

Charlotte Gregory, Head of Sustainability at SMS, shares her journey and insights on breaking barriers in the male-dominated STEM industry and paving the way for future generations this International Women’s Day.

Can you tell us about your background and what initially sparked your interest in your field?

It’s been a long and slightly winding path. I started at a small college in a rural area studying engineering, which is particularly relevant as I was the first girl to enrol in engineering at that college. I’ve always been passionate and confident that I wanted to pursue a career in engineering, wherever that led me.

At the time, it didn’t feel great being the only girl; however, in the end, it was a really interesting experience. I was able to dip my toe into all kinds of funky engineering areas like maths, physics, welding, and technical drawings. After my time at college, I decided to pursue Product Design at University, which was a fantastic mix of logic and engineering, along with communication because it’s about how you communicate the design, not just create it, and of course aesthetics, which I thoroughly enjoyed because I care about how a final project or product looks. These three core skills I learned throughout my education have been incredibly useful not only in life but in general, equipping me with a very well-rounded view and the right tools for the future.

After university, I took on a short stint at a renewable energy company. Initially, they didn’t have an opening, but they created a role to take me on, which goes to show it’s always worth asking. Unfortunately, they folded when the feed-in tariff dropped, but my time there moulded my mindset and made a strong impression on me. Shortly after, I moved to Mira, one of the largest shower producers in the UK, where I was able to carve out my role advising on sustainability. I started my career there by changing numbers and letters on engineering drawings, and as I began to understand the business better, I realized sustainability hadn’t been a consideration. Having left university fresh-faced and working at a renewable energy company, you approach things with a skewed vision of the world. There had been some internal rumblings about sustainability, and this is where I was able to harness my skills and vision to do something about it.

I was very fortunate in that I had a fantastic manager who was incredibly supportive of my ideas. We sat down and had a development session, and he talked me through the skills I needed to build, the experience I could gain, and the training I could go on. Suddenly, I went from a position of saying ‘I don’t know how to do this’ to him saying ‘well, you can, and what is the worst that could happen? They could say no.’ This is where I learned the invaluable lesson that you should always feel confident to ask questions, and no isn’t no; it’s just a route to finding a different way of doing something. Subsequently, I went on to become the first sustainability engineer within Mira Showers and managed to bargain my way onto a sustainability and business diploma, which I did whilst I was working there.

I worked through the business for 6-7 years, and I reached a point where we had met their ambitions and felt it was time to move on. It was a fantastic experience, and I am so grateful for the help and the ‘don’t be afraid to ask’ mentality that had come along the way. This then led me to move to SMS as Senior Sustainability Consultant, which is a dual role of in-house and consulting, and finally onto Head of Sustainability. I love the business’s purpose, and I’ve been able to push the boundaries and continue to ask the questions that have resulted in successful, sustainability-driven outcomes.

What were some of the challenges you faced when breaking into the industry, and how did you overcome them?

Being the only girl to take engineering at college, then moving through my early career and seeing that there aren’t many women in the same field, affirmed that there is so much that can be done to encourage and educate young women on the opportunities the STEM industry has to offer.

In my position at SMS, I’ve recently moved under new line management. This is the first time I think ever that I’ve worked in a team which is almost entirely women – and that kind of scared me a bit, having never had that before. I overcame these challenges by being confident in what I love, and what I wanted to achieve, having the support of a mentor and managers who encouraged me to ask the questions I wanted to and take on new challenges that have ultimately gotten me where I am today.

Could you share a pivotal moment or project in your career that you feel propelled you forward?

The most pivotal moment and influential character in my career was my Manager at Mira. He showed me that I could aim as high as I wanted to and gave me the confidence to ask the right questions, to challenge things for the better, and to take on or pursue any ambitions I had.

What advice would you give to young women who are interested in pursuing a career in STEM?

The best piece of advice I can give is to have confidence in what you love and go after what you are passionate about; asking questions is never the wrong thing to do. A no is not a no – it’s just a redirection to an alternative outcome. I understand female representation is getting somewhat better in terms of the number of girls and women pursuing engineering and other STEM industries and courses; however, we need to keep our passion and go for what we want, as there are plenty of opportunities out there for us – we just need to lead the way.

In your opinion, what are some of the key initiatives or changes needed to encourage more women to enter and thrive in STEM fields?

Generally, there are a lot more initiatives needed to get women into STEM. At SMS, we have a school and university volunteering programme, which my colleague Mabli participated in through supporting a university open day. We engage with schools to give early insight into what we do and demonstrate the opportunities available in the industry, based on our experiences.

Young girls need to see women doing jobs outside of the perceived norm and gender roles that have been peddled for too long. From experience, being able to reiterate back to not seeking permission, we must inspire confidence in those, be it in professional and educational spaces, to go after what they want – even if they don’t have the experience. Today, I don’t typically meet others who came through an engineering background, but it helps in so many different fields – the logic and communication skills you gain from all of the STEM fields are the foundations of amazing careers.

What are some misconceptions you think people have about women in STEM, and how can these be addressed?

I think one thing that needs to be addressed is the rhetoric around being ‘brave’ to go into an industry like engineering or technology. That shouldn’t be the case; you should be seen as a normal person who is going on a learning journey – you’re just as smart as everyone else, and your capabilities are the same. I’m hoping that it can move away from being ‘a boys club that a brave girl decides to break into’ and more of an even playing field with individuals eager to learn and grow. In my case, I wouldn’t say I’m particularly brave – I simply went after what I was interested in, and I loved engineering so that was my main driver. It being a male-dominated field wasn’t a deterrent for me, nor should it be – but it would be nice to see more female representation to help destigmatise STEM industries.

What do you see as the future of women in STEM, and what opportunities and challenges lie ahead?

If we get this right, the opportunities are vast. We have to leverage that women are smart, and the opportunities they bring and what they can contribute to a business. Women have different skill sets and thinking they can bring in this area; we can think slightly differently to men and from a psychological aspect we can bring more firing power. We have to be mindful of everything we do, making sure we are shouting about where and how women are making positive change and thinking, are we showing them the representation to the next generation? We must be the next fanfare, maybe it’s best to be honest in saying that it isn’t easy, but it’s so fulfilling when you pursue it. We need to collectively see the potential in those spaces; it’s a foundation for genuinely rewarding careers.