Leading United Utilities’ Water Central Operations business, Jenny Whitehead’s role involves the management of highly technical teams and a strategy to shape the future of integrated control through digital technology. Despite not having a pure science or engineering background, she has unlocked significant opportunities in a varied STEM career.
When I was at school, I did work experience with the Environment Agency, and I was hooked. From then on, I was always focused on that career path, even checking with my local water company before selecting my A-Levels to make sure they were suitable. I then went on to study Geography at Bristol University, which was predominantly physical geography. After university, I applied for graduate training at three different water companies and started with United Utilities. In the first couple of years on the scheme, I was exposed to all areas of the business, which was a fantastic introduction to the opportunities available.
Accessing a variety of roles
After finishing on the graduate scheme, I took a job in asset management as a Network Strategy Analyst, moving into quite a technical field and working on a joint research paper with Sheffield University. After that, I progressed into more leadership roles within the business, managing quite technical teams.
There weren’t many women in the company when I started. Although the graduate scheme was more diverse, senior management outside of HR was all-male. Certainly, in the early stages of my career, older, senior leaders had lower expectations of women and there was a degree of protectiveness. That was really a generational issue and, as many of those men have left the business, they’ve been replaced by men and women who have been brought up to expect equality.
The importance of culture
The organisation has changed as a result and, generally, there’s a reasonable split. The culture of an organisation plays a big part in that. Attitudes to diversity and inclusion roll down from the senior leadership team, where United Utilities has both a female Operations Manager and a female IT manager, and women are far more represented across middle-management. Our Generation-Q network to promote equality has been active for a number of years. It has established flexible working policies that help us to retain the skills we need in the business and, through our recruitment policies, we make an effort to tackle any unconscious bias to ensure we get the best candidate for any post.
My current role is a Head Office position at our Integrated Control Centre, as a Water Systems Operation Manager. The main aspect of my job is production planning, directing which of our water treatment works should produce what volume of water to meet the needs of our network. I also manage a team of process operators involved in monitoring our treatment works. In addition, I’m involved in a project to shape the future of our integrated control centre, using technology to take more remote control and to move from a less reactive system to one that’s more centrally planned.
The need to change perceptions
There’s still progress to be made for women. I personally, feel that I missed out on senior roles by taking time out to have my children and that that had a disproportionate impact on my career. Perceptions are changing, but it does take time. The more women we can encourage into STEM careers, the more those attitudes will need to change for employers and organisations to secure the skills they need to compete.
At a grassroots level, there’s a huge lack of awareness of engineering and other STEM careers in schools. I was good at science and maths, yet no-one ever mentioned engineering as a possible career, and I think that was due to gender bias. What that type of failure means is that young people lack an appreciation of the variety of engineering and STEM jobs that are available to them and the opportunities to dip in and out of pure engineering or pure science and move into strategy or operational roles. Although there was a large technical component to my degree, it wasn’t necessarily vocational. What it shows is that there’s a whole host of disciplines that can provide you with the analytical skills to build a successful career in the industry.