Heather Turnbull

Back story: Heather Turnbull, ‘Women need to stick together and encourage each other’

Image credit: Heather Turnbull

TV presenter Dr Shini Somara talks to Heather Turnbull, design engineer with TechnipFMC. She works on well completion systems, designing components for subsea Christmas trees.


Shini Somara: What inspired you to go into engineering?

Heather Turnbull: As well as equal education opportunities, my mum and dad encouraged us to do anything we wanted to do. Having grown up with three siblings, I gravitated towards the Meccano sets and Lego. I have always been good at maths and physics, so a career in engineering seemed like the natural choice. I studied mechanical engineering at the University of Strathclyde, then went to Aberdeen to begin my PhD.

Thanks to my upbringing, I have never carried the stigma that says females cannot do certain things. I have understood that I am different in engineering and I bring a different set of valuable and needed skills to our industry and I am proud of that. I’m not going to pretend that I can do everything, but I will embrace what I am able to do.

At the same time, I have worked with many men, both at university and in industry, and can honestly say that I have never been treated differently anyway. But perhaps that is because I have always demanded the same respect as other men receive.

SS: How important have mentors been to your career journey?

HT: I’ve had some great mentors over the years – both male and female – who again, have treated me the exact same way as my male counterparts. On balance, I think male mentors may have even been more influential to me because they have pushed me as much as their male mentees.

I don’t think women necessarily need female mentors, but everyone needs to participate in eradicating stereotypes within engineering. I also think women need to stick together and encourage each other. As an industry we need to do a lot of work to change perceptions of women in engineering.

SS: Do you think it is important to have diversity within engineering?

HT: I think it’s very important that we have diversity. I do a lot of work with schools and when I walk into a classroom, kids are not expecting that I will say I’m an engineer. These kids have never met a female engineer, so they don’t know that this is something they can aspire to.

When I was in school, I had the opportunity to meet plenty of female engineers from Jaguar Land Rover and Shell and as a result, there was relatability. There are so many different types of engineer and everybody should be welcomed.

SS: As a minority, have you ever questioned your role in engineering?

HT: I think everyone does, including men. I think that’s perfectly normal. Potentially impostor syndrome and this sense of feeling like you don’t belong is exaggerated as a female. But it’s certainly not true that girls have less of a place in engineering.

I have struggled with confidence myself. In fact, I was presenting at a conference at the IET a couple of years ago, and I was so nervous with an audience of 400 people that I gave my presentation constantly using the word ‘we’ when describing my work. At the end, a man questioned who ‘we’ was. It was there that I had to confess that I had done all the work myself. That event taught me so much about confidence and taking ownership of my own hard work.  

SS: Has it been hard to maintain your femininity in the male-dominated oil and gas sector?

HT: I enjoy communicating, making new friends, and getting along with my team by finding common ground – I think those are highly valuable communication skills in themselves. I don’t pretend to be one of the lads because I enjoy being a woman and won’t deny myself that or even apologise, which I think can be quite a strong female tendency. With all my experiences of being in a minority, I don’t even notice being in a male-dominated industry now.

SS: What has driven you along your career path?

HT: I’ve been very encouraged and supported throughout and I feel very grateful for that. Getting a scholarship as a result of being encouraged to figure out what I really want to do with my career was a massive stepping stone. Building a network of contacts from an early age was also very important to me and has really driven me.

When you’re given support, you’re able to flourish and that can lead to being even more driven to succeed. It’s certainly been really important for me.


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