Amongst the attendees were Vattenfall Heat UK's Engineering Manager, Selene Molina Blanco; University of Bristol masters student, Lina Drozd; and Regional Director for the South, Adriana Rodriguez Cobas. Here in conversation with Digital Manager Jim Christian, they reflect back to six months ago on the benefits such an event brings to the industry.
'Connecting Women in District Heating' is the event you all attended towards the end of last year - and it stemmed from a group called Divas in District Heating?
Adriana: It started with that original title, yes, as a small community run by Rachael Mills and Liz Warren (from SE2) who were curious about these topics and got together for breakfast. I met with one of them by chance, not knowing about their network, trying to understand from our side of the company if there were more women out there doing this - people typically say that there are no women doing district heating. And subsequently, I was invited to the monthly breakfast.
Could you say ‘Women in District Heating’ is more of a movement than an organisation?
Selene: Yes, you could say this was more of a movement out of curiosity - a lot of people willing to connect with women in the industry. I really liked the event and it's expanding. So it turns out that there are more women than we thought!
Adriana: It’s about making a community where people can come together to be curious and explore topics. Nothing explicitly to do with being a woman. For example, we were listening to a lady who started her own district heating business, but built around an agriculture niche - she just happens to be a woman. It was more about creating the space so that we can identify what are the topics that we really want to drive.
Lina: That's what really shocked me when I came into the event. There were so many people there. I found that quite inspiring that there were so many people who were doing the same thing in trying to drive a low-carbon infrastructure.
By the numbers
21.80% of women work in the engineering sector (incl. engineers)
In all STEM A-Levels except Chemistry more girls get A*-C grades than boys – including Further Maths, Maths, ICT and Design and Technology.
Girls and women make up less than 18% of higher apprentices in engineering and manufacturing, and 7.4% of all engineering apprentices.
Selene: I thought most of the attendees would be coming from other companies doing district heating, but there were attendees from legal, suppliers, government, local authorities…people from councils who wanted to buy these projects. People from marketing who were tasked with widening their understanding of the sector. So it was a little bit of everything.
There are different angles of the district heating topic - not explicitly an engineering theme. It's not a STEM or a women in technical careers thing. It's women in the industry from every side of it. The event also involved personal development, such as someone working in Finance getting a chance to know about the complex details and the technical side of things.
Adriana: The interesting bit as well was that although the title was 'Connecting Women in District Heating' it was not only for women. The idea was that women would be the ones that would be talking and leading the sessions. It was open to men. There were a few...
Lina: …I didn't see them in the crowds of women!
Selene: Normally you go to events that are led by men, organised by men and with only men speaking in the panels and the presentations. And then you end up talking to men at the networking drinks because they make up the majority of people attending the event. And it was interesting to see the difference in feeling. It was like a sponsored event, with panellists, with people speaking, with different workshops - no different from any other event in terms of organisation.
Lina: I think it felt different because it was personalised for women. For example, one of the talks was ‘How do you negotiate in a position as a woman’ because there are certain ways that woman are less likely to project themselves. It was tailored for women in that respect and great to have that emphasis. You don't get that elsewhere.
What were some other key moments from the event?
Adriana: I really enjoyed the presentation about a lady who was talking about her work in district heating1 and the link with agriculture. Not only is the type of work she does linking sustainability and agriculture very interesting and specialised, but the story of her journey was also amazing. It was very difficult and she struggled but she ended up there - probably not by choice but because she was faced with a challenge. She couldn't carry on in her existing job, her life circumstances changed and that was a catalyst to push her to do something very very different.
The interlink between greenhouses and district heating - trying to make sure your food production is more sustainable - and economic links regarding whether we are able to import/export or what happens with the UK as part of the wider continent… that was one of my favourites.
Selene: Yes, it linked all of the things like industry and innovation but also the journey that she was on. I also liked the policy talk. It was a good summarisation of what is going on and where the government is going - how should we be steering etc.
Lina: We also had workshops after the talks. It wasn't just a day of sitting down and absorbing information, there were opportunities to break out into groups and discuss things further. You moved around rooms, talked to different people, did loads of activities. Everyone just wanted to jump up and take the lead and share their experience. There was really good energy. Everyone just wanted to give.
Selene: It was really well organised and complete for a first-time event.
Adriana: It was an amazing amount of work that Liz and Rachael did to organise everything in their spare time. It was so nice to see that there was no ‘I’m this company or that company or 'we're competitors’’. It was genuinely about ‘we are all here just to talk about it’ and we happen to be women.
Selene: Everyone was willing to share and network. Sometimes you see more shy people and outgoing people and outgoing people tend to dominate conversations. I feel like I spoke with almost everyone and almost everyone had their moment either in one-to-ones with people or over coffees or over roundtables or workshops asking stuff - I think everyone contributed.
To celebrate both International Women's Day and World Engineering Day in March, we spoke to team members Hannah, Lina and Selene about their personal interest in the field.
Selene: ...it becomes a very comfortable environment.
You must have new views on how conferences can be run. How will you apply what you've learnt and experienced going forward?
Selene: Personally speaking, it made me aware that I want to be more in charge of my personal development and actively involved in mentorship. That's changed for me.
Lina: It's easier to knock down that barrier and reach out to someone now. Even if you just had a quick hello over a coffee, you're now even more aware of the available support and seen firsthand that everybody is so welcoming to help. In the future, if you have any concerns you know that there's a pool of people and you can just reach out knowing that someone will know someone who's able to help.
Adriana: I think the network expanded. I think that point around having a wider universe of people to think about when a topic comes to mind and hopefully that just creates more momentum. So I would not only think about the people I traditionally see at other events because now I have met these other people. I have another list now of 100 people who are linked to what I want to do. And I hope that that slowly - and with everyone doing it - changes and you begin to see more of that happening. And the other thing is that it just made me aware of - although it might sound simple - the value of creating an environment for people to come together and speak. It doesn't need to be pre-defined, but just creating the space helps them to shape it into something relevant. I don't know what it's going to turn into, but it created this open, free-form space.
Lina: Putting the time aside to have this space is really important.
Selene: Because it was a full day event it meant that we were fully engaged with the topics and not dashing between meetings. And I think that it also proves that women have things to say as well and they want to share it and they don't normally have space - or they don't feel comfortable in other more conventional spaces to speak up or even to attend.
I've read somewhere the theory that women don't go to events not because they cannot or because they don't want to but because they aren't advertised for them - they're advertised more for managers. Or at the end of the day it's the same people in different venues but maybe closed to external people. Or they have caring responsibilities after work and cannot stay from 5 pm - 9 pm or go anywhere else after work. Which means women don't go to events and don't speak at events as a general rule.
So really we should be making standard industry events more inclusive. From 3 pm - 6 pm instead of 6 pm - 9 pm. Or actively invite women. I think that's a good start.
Supporting our team
Vattenfall Heat UK actively encourages our team to join working groups and sponsor events to engage with other women in the industry, as well as mentoring girls getting their start learning STEM subjects to lead them onto an engineering pathway.
If you could pick one point that made you smile or laugh during the event - or an ‘A-ha!’ moment.
Adriana: What made me smile? The fact that women pulled this together without it being super structured. And the fact everyone was calm - it just showed that you can get things done. And that made me smile a lot. And also - the turnout - and it was sold out...
Lina: ...I was on the waiting list for weeks and then two days before the event, I was so happy to get a space!
Adriana: What made me laugh was to see how uncomfortable the room was at the beginning of the session with the drag queens. We were all like 'oh, this is so weird...' And I was sitting next to people that I'm negotiating with or consultants that I work with and we were all like 'aaah....this is not what we do...". And as time went by, things just changed. People embraced it and were designing their dolls…
Lina: ...there was dancing…
Adriana: …dancing - that made me laugh a lot! We were just so awkward and out of our comfort space as soon as we had to do something with glitter and glue and paper!
Lina: For me, there was (in addition to the drag queen fun!) a talk at the end about two girls that go on site frequently. A lot of the facilities they go to only had male toilets and didn't have female toilets - they managed to change that and made a whole process around it. Two people saw that something wasn't right and decided to go out and change it2. It's a really small thing but it was inspiring to hear how two people can make a big difference.
Selene: What made me laugh - I had a bias against the use of the word 'diva' - I didn't like the word diva at all - and I think someone overheard me saying this. And at the end of the conference they gave the definition of the word diva as ‘someone who stands up for themselves and loves themselves for who they are and they are there to be someone to follow’. Someone that sets examples for people. And that made me smile. I like that definition and I can relate to it.
So if that's how you're using the word diva, then I'm all into it.