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Careers Options For Chemical Engineers With Special Emphasis On Females

Many young lady engineers ask questions about their career options specially in the context of various options in the chemical process industry. In this blog entry I would like to take the opinion of the young ladies who are just starting their careers as chemical engineers as well as present the work conditions of the different areas where chemical engineers work. since I have a wide range of experience working in Plant Operations, Design Engineering and Sales / Marketing which are 3 of the most common areas where chemical engineers work.

Let us start with plant operations. Typically most chemical process plants run 24x7, 8000 hours a year. The operational period is divided in 3 shifts on a daily basis. This includes the day shift, typically starting from 6:00 or 7:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. or 3:00 P.M.. Next the afternoon shift up to 10:00 or 11:00 P.M. and the night shift starting at 10:00 or 11:00 P.M. and continuing till the early morning hours. Besides the engineer (typically one or two depending on the plant / unit size), there are plant operators and technicians to support the trouble-free operation of the plant in shifts. Night shifts are also called graveyard shifts. Many of the plant operators and technicians are school dropouts with mostly a weak economic background. Their importance to the operations of the plant cannot be overemphasized. Also their integrity cannot be doubted. However, the tough life that they lead coarsens these men. makes them cynical and suspicious of any radical change in their workplace. The language spoken by personnel working in plant operations would make anyone with sensibilities cringe. Even light banter and humor amongst plant personnel carries a lot of sexual innuendo. I would leave it to the choice of the young lady engineer to work in such an environment. However, on a personal note, if I had a daughter who was a chemical engineer and was starting her career, I would surely disapprove of her choosing such a work environment. But then, without being biased I must also add that plant operations is one area where any chemical engineer learns the most because it is not a paper design, it is an actual chemical unit operation and the engineer can clearly visualize whether the design is working perfectly or changes are required in the plant design to make it more reliable from the view point of easy operability, enhanced profitability and most importantly as a safe place to work..

Sales / Marketing of chemical process equipment or chemicals is another option that a lady engineer can chose. As a general rule, sales / marketing requires quite a bit of traveling and for any engineer be it a male or female if frequent travel is not his or her cup of tea then this option is better avoided. A sales / marketing job requires the engineer to be people savvy and if you are shy or reticent then again this is not the job for you irrespective of your gender. When I say people savvy it means that you will interact with all kinds of people during you assignment as a sales / marketing engineer including genuinely decent people as well as outright rude and obnoxious people. If dealing with the latter kind is something that offends your sensibilities than a sales / marketing job is better avoided. Again, this is not gender specific, but the reasonable logic in this is that females are generally more sensitive to any kind of loose talk or rude behavior.

In Design engineering the very fact that you are in a sophisticated environment and working with highly qualified engineering professionals makes it a very attractive proposition for engineers who have very delicate sensibilities and are looking for a sophisticated work environment. Again, this aspect is not gender specific and includes both males and females. The fixed working hours, cozy environment and considering the person has an academic bent of mind are added attractions to choose such a work area. Mind you, it is not an easy job. Accountability counts here also, in fact probably more. The livelihood and lives depend on the right design of the plant designed by the design engineer. Please note that the attractive work environment is no excuse for a tardy performance. Any design engineer, be it a male or female should be prepared to be taken to task for not living up to expectations demanded by his or her organization.

I would like to know the opinion of all engineers regarding this blog entry and specifically from young lady engineers who would like to know about their career options at the start of their careers.


Art Montemayor
Jun 08 2011 12:31 PM
I very much like this topic that Ankur has put on the table for discussion and exchange of ideas, comments, experiences, and opinions. I like it because it is real-life and touches directly on some personal and career questions that are often raised by students and young engineering graduates.

Like Ankur, I also went through the experiences of working in Plant production, Sales and Business Development, and Process Design. I started my engineering career as plant production manager of plants located in developing countries outside of my country (USA). I have always considered myself as very fortunate and lucky for having had my early years spent in actual, profit-oriented, efficiency-dominated, results-oriented, pressure environments. I was also blessed in having an excellent engineering mentor from the very outset. I gained an extra-ordinary amount of experience, self-esteem, and pride in my work in those early years that helped me in later, challenging and more difficult jobs in Plant management, project engineering and project management. I find some general statements in this blog that don’t reflect what I found in operating and managing plant operations during the 1960’s through the 1970’s. I worked in some relatively under-developed and taxing environments and with little or no technical engineering backup or assistance in many cases. My early years covered Latin America and the Caribbean and we had little or sparse contact with other countries or the USA. My labor pool was not composed of high school drop-outs. Heck, I would have cherished such educational credentials in my operators at the time. My operators came from very poor and humble backgrounds and little or no grade school background – but each and every operator that I managed in those years was upright, sober, honest, hard-working, and a devoted employee bent on ensuring that his job was safe and that he/she satisfied production needs and requirements in order to ensure that he/she could keep supporting his/her family. No one –especially my production supervisors – employed harsh (or much less foul) language. I learned from my mentor very early to impose my moral and civil code within my departments and everyone worked towards that standard. I found that my work staff identified with my goals and willingly followed my principles of a clean and hygienic workplace and language. In my 51 years of engineering I have not tolerated and have not been exposed to a foul-language environment or one where human dignity and rights were not respected. Therefore, I do not relate to operators with foul language or school dropouts. In the recent past, most –if not all operators I have worked with and around in the USA have had some college and technical schooling – with degrees. My son is an E/I technician and works long and hard hours in process plants here in Houston, Texas and he certainly is very adverse to any bad language. He has a college degree and a technical certificate in his present career. My 3 brothers and a nephew also work in process plants. One has worked in the Alaska North Slope for over 29 years and is an E/I supervisor on gas turbine-driven compressors. He has also led operator recruiting and training programs and he reports that the main trouble he has come across is in the experience, common sense, and technical maturity of young operators. I certainly have no objections about my son working hard and long hours in a process plant environment (as I once did) because I know his work ethic and moral standards are kept at a high level. I would hold him or any other plant worker to the same standards of respect and recognition towards ANY woman in the same manner that I try to uphold.

I have worked with, amongst, over, and under women engineers for many years now. I have also had the pleasure of working with some very astute and intelligent women lawyers and business managers while managing projects here in the USA and in other countries. It was in South America that I first came to work with women engineers during the late 1960’s – when such an event was indeed rare here in the USA. I found, to my surprise, that the female engineers that I worked with were more than competitive with men. I also found that women have always had lead roles in South America in such professions as medicine, engineering, and the legal profession. During all my years in South America I never found or heard of one incident regarding “machismo” or anything similar. In fact, I have found that women there are given more competitive opportunities than in the USA.

Summarizing, I would say that women have brought new impetus and thinking into the Chemical Engineering profession - and will continue to do so. Recently, I returned back to my Alma Mater, Texas A&M, to find the campus that I once attended as one of 8,000 military male cadets is now led academically in most of the engineering schools by its female students – both in academics and in leadership. I think that it is only fitting that the same competitive spirit I saw in my grandmothers, mother, and five sisters while growing up is still alive and doing well. I know it is because I see it in my two daughters and my three granddaughters. If my granddaughters exhibit the same “guts” and genes as their mother, grandmother and great-grandmothers (which I do not doubt), I have nothing to worry about them competing with men on even terms and a level field. They will make sure they are respected and accepted for what they are and what they represent – without any token favors or favoritism. And that just makes me “proud as punch” because since I come from a large family (3 brothers, 5 sisters and 4 siblings that died during childbirth) and personally know that we depended on our matriarchs for leadership, survival, support, and our well-being. Therefore I know, from first-hand experience, the leadership and cerebral potential of our female engineers.
Ankur and Art have given very good insight into the female chemical engineers profession according to their own experiences and thoughts.


I have read the accounts of Ankur and Art. In my 45 years of career, I haven't had any working experience with Female Engineers except for the last 2 to 3 years. Therefore my experience is limited in that sense. However my perception is:
1. They are intelligent
2. Hardworking
3. Balanced
4. Ambitious
5. Forthright
We should encourage them to advance in the right direction.
Still no comments from the lady engineers! Come on, let us hear what you have got to say.? This blog was meant specifically for you people. All the comments have been from males till now.

Anuja Sawant
Jun 12 2011 01:42 PM
Thank you Art and Ankur. Ankur had humbly helped me when I asked him about roles that women can play in the field of Chemical Engineering when he posted " Know Your Career Opportunities - A Primer On Seeking New Employment ". I was overwhelmed to see this post. Thanks a lot Ankur.
I am a petite girl, an average student, a slow learner, but I know if I finally understand something I can put it into good use, so I don't want my physical weaknesses to come in my way, I am willing to try any area in this field. But then, will a company give me a job to 'try', they have certain requirements. So, if the designing section is what suits me, I would give my best to it.
I was always attracted to Environmental issues, so I thought I can use my engineering knowledge in this field. I found the following related to this field :
I am interested in both, research and technical field. So, I am searching for opportunities that will get me into any of these fields.
One more question Ankur. Please tell me, is MBA required for Sales and Marketing? Management and Marketing were never my piece of cake since I am still working on my communication skills, but I don't want to erase this option, there might be a chance I'll turn out good in it if I learn the right way to do it.
H! thanks art and ankur for this interesting blog. im a trainee lead technician in a manufacturing company, so the work environment is really for male though the company decided to hire female ChE, right now i do feel a bit awkward when my buddy trainer speak of foul language though i understand that male sometimes do green jokes and its just casual to them to speak of sexual innuendo. so in my opinion, nothing personal, when they joke about it, i just smile and do my work. because before the company hire me i told them that i will do my best and exceed my employer's expectations. actually this is my first job and my parents thought me well how to handle such situation because they already anticipated things like this to happen when i asked them if i could find a job that would challenge my capacity.
so please dont think that just because we're female doesnt mean we cant do the job of a male. we're also capable of strength requiring activities and has active mentality.
but still in my country, companies would rather chose a male process operator rather than a female. its really a frustration in my part because i do like some day if i gained enough experience, become a process operator or design engineer.
For technical sales / marketing for machinery and chemicals in the chemical process industry technical skills and knowledge count more than an MBA degree. You should be able to explain and demonstrate the technical features of your machinery and product since these are niche industrial products and not commodity items.

Without a technical background it is not possible to function as a sales / marketing professional in the chemical process industry. In a nutshell, you can very well do without a business management qualification but not without the technical knowledge in the chemical process industry.


H! thanks art and ankur for this interesting blog. im a trainee lead technician in a manufacturing company, so the work environment is really for male though the company decided to hire female ChE, right now i do feel a bit awkward when my buddy trainer speak of foul language though i understand that male sometimes do green jokes and its just casual to them to speak of sexual innuendo. so in my opinion, nothing personal, when they joke about it, i just smile and do my work. because before the company hire me i told them that i will do my best and exceed my employer's expectations. actually this is my first job and my parents thought me well how to handle such situation because they already anticipated things like this to happen when i asked them if i could find a job that would challenge my capacity.
so please dont think that just because we're female doesnt mean we cant do the job of a male. we're also capable of strength requiring activities and has active mentality.
but still in my country, companies would rather chose a male process operator rather than a female. its really a frustration in my part because i do like some day if i gained enough experience, become a process operator or design engineer.


I must congratulate you to come out with your experiences as a young lady working in a plant operations environment. It is an encouraging sign that once a male dominated bastion is opening up its doors for young ladies and this shows the progress mankind has made in trying to achieve gender equality. May this trend continue and hopefully we will have a lot of equal distribution of males and females in the jobs that traditionally used to be male bastions.

Thanks for another insightful article! Posted Image

As a young process engineer in a consultancy firm, I noticed that the number of female engineers outnumber that of the men! My dept manager joked that he wonders where the male engineers are! Posted Image

I suppose the consultancy environment is very appealing to female engineers; comfortable office surroundings, no need to get the hands dirty...but I have many female peers working on the operation side, so it's safe to assume that female engineers have no problems working in tougher & harsher work environments.

As for foul language & insensitive behavior at the workplace, it's not acceptable in any field so female engineers should stand up for their rights if they are offended/harassed by such behavior.

All in all, the engineering profession has garnered much support from females & we ladies should strive to excel in our field as well as to contribute back to the profession! Posted Image
Modesty Blaise
Jun 20 2011 06:49 AM
I disagree with Ankur regarding the night shifts and the plant operators and technicians and their language with “sexual innuendo”. All around the world I have worked in the night shifts with the plant operators and technicians and most of them are decent and nice people. On the contrary, I know some highly qualified engineering professionals who have a language with sexual innuendo, ( and they work only in a day shift ). So, that means that this kind of language does not have any link with the education background but only with the personality.

Regarding the female position in operations also depends from country to country. In some countries you can see females work as console operators, and in laboratory most of the technicians are females with one or two male only.

Also I think there is no need for this discussion, because it is the same to discuss about male and their career options in the textile or fashion industry.

And I would courage any engineer, female and male, to work some time in plant operation, it is valuable experience.

I have no issues with your opinion about women working in a plant environment, however, your advise that there is no need for this discussion is not acceptable. Only when you discuss things the picture becomes clearer.

I don't know whether you have worked in South Asia or the middle-east. You will hardly find females in the plant operations environment in these geographical areas. In many South Asian countries where unemployment rates are high and the societies are traditionally patriarchal, the bread winner is still the male and when jobs are scarce the male still carries the immediate responsibility of holding a job as a priority over a female. I belong to the South Asian sub-continent and can vouch for this. I worked 11 years in plant operations in several companies and never had the fortune of working with any female colleague or junior. In my home country the law says that you cannot compel a woman to work after 7 P.M. in the evening which caters to a lot of social sensibilities of a civilized society which holds women in high regard. Probably in the geographical location that you belong there are no issues of unemployment and women are able to work in the harsh plant environments. As I said in my blog entry most middle-class fathers in the South Asian sub-continent would frown upon their daughters working in a plant operations environment even today. I must also add that some of the very high end jobs such as Doctors, IT professionals, college professors, lawyers are now slowly starting to be dominated by females in the South Asian sub-continent. Driving trucks, taxis, running heavy machinery is still considered best left to men in the geographical area I belong to.

Your comparison of plant operations with textile and fashion industry is not quite correct. This is a high end profession and some of the best fashion photographers and fashion designers are males. The fashion modeling industry has an equal opportunity for males and females. In fact my wife happens to be a fashion designer and I probably have more knowledge about this field than some of my other colleagues in the field of chemical engineering.

I agree with Modesty, particularly in the following aspects:

- Operational experience is a precious thing in career of every ChE which cannot be compensated even with 100 years in process design office. Wearing lovely skirts, doing copy-paste work from Excel spreadsheets and process documents, and enjoying office environment is a nice thing to do, but it lacks contact with the real world.

- Also, I agree with the statement that operators are very friendly and usually quite humble people, more than many engineers are. I have been working with lot of females throughout my career, and I've never heard of a case that operators were disrespecting any woman around - it's a matter of personality and personal character, not a matter of education or working environment. On the other side, I know quite a few engineers who were using their work environment for flirting.

So, there goes a star for Modesty.
Modesty Blaise
Jun 20 2011 12:44 PM

When I read your topic it sounds like a very general opinion, the way how you describe it seems that on the whole planet is the same situation.
A lot of male and female professionals read this forum, and maybe some of them have a lot of doubts in which direction their career should go. Even one word is enough for engineers and technicians to decide and choose their career path. And aware of this, that words have influence, I think it is not easy to say just like that which position is suitable for male or female, operation/sales/marketing/design.
As I said everything depends from country to country. So, if I want to be more precise, the title of this topic should be Careers Options for Chemical Engineers with Special Emphasis on Females in South Asia sub-continent.
I would advice all colleagues, male and female: do not afraid of any hard work, do not afraid of the night shifts, if you have a chance take a work in plant operation and see how valves and pumps, columns, compressors work in reality.


I see your total disregard and disdain for design professionals in your comments by insinuating them to be skirt chasers. But the fact of the matter is that all plants including the ones you have and are operating were designed in a design office by a bunch of design professionals, so please take a note of it. It also shows that you probably don't know what you are talking about and indicates a tinge of green when you talk about design professionals.

I have never shown any disregard for operations personnel having myself spent 11 long years in operations and I cherish those enriching moments of mine. The opinion in my blog entry is totally personal and I do not thrust my views on others and to my understanding anyone reading the blog entry is an informed professional who knows what he or she wants in his professional career.
You sound as if you have already sucked-in all the wisdom of this universe into yourself, while you are just an ordinary engineer like all of us here.

I find it quite arrogant and disrespective to use any feature of this forum as a sort of tabloid for expressing personal opinion, and then finding yourself offended and aggressive if opinion of other forum members is different than yours. If you don't like to read replies, or if you like to see only glorification of your paragraphs, then simply share them only with those people who are your unquestionable admirers at all times.

As said earlier, I am not an Operations engineer spitting on design guys. I have been working in all stages of the project life cycle, all the way from conceptual engineering to commissioning and startup, and post-commissioning Operations support. I've spent significant amount of time in design office(s) and also having friends working in those companies, and I know what I am speaking about. While my intention was not to degrade design engineering offices, for sure I can say the things are not even close to being so intelectual, creative, and shiny over there - a lot of copy/paste work, ready-made spreadsheets for plugging numbers and reading results, and many many people doing these things for years without really knowing what is all about. I just can't see anything glorious in that.

Best regards,
Modesty Blaise
Jun 21 2011 08:42 AM

Words: “graveyard shifts, school dropouts, weak economic background, even light banter and humor amongst plant personnel carries a lot of sexual innuendo” are very, very serious words. The message I get from you blog is: run away from these people and night shift, it is horrible job position but design office is “sophisticated environment, cozy environment, person has an academic bent of mind”.

This forum is very professional forum, from this forum people can learn a lot, and your writing about job position is not acceptable.

We must take responsible for our words.

Chris Haslego
Jun 21 2011 06:00 PM
Oh, I knew this blog entry would spark some conversation! But, let's not make it personal. I've cleaned up some of the comments above.

When Ankur posted this blog entry for review, I thought it was thought provoking and expected feedback both positive and negative (which I think is what we're seeing).

But, I ask myself this, "If a young lady in engineering school were to read this blog entry and all of the comments that follow, would it benefit her in some way?"

My answer to the above is "Yes"...and that's what the community is all about. It was a sensitive subject to approach and I considered further editing to Ankur's posting as to not offend anyone, but this is his viewpoint. Over the years, we've all shared information and knowledge. The purpose of the blogs is to continue that tradition, but to also allow for sharing and exchange of opinions and perspectives as well. Agree, disagree, but let's always be respectful.

We always have to be careful when we try to stereotype a group of folks (plant operators), but it is very interesting to hear everyone's view points on what type of plant operators they've met and how they may (or may not) react to female engineers in an environment long dominated by males....but this is changing rapidly which made this blog entry timely.

I would LOVE to see Modesty or any of our female community members open up a blog and give us their perspective on a consistent basis. If any of you are interested and need help getting started, just let me know.

I rest my case. I think things got out of hand a little bit. But let me once again make it clear, I have no disrespect for any work environment and nowhere have I indicated this in my blog entry. What is saddening is people showing utter disregard tor environments other than they work. Chemical Engineering is not a basketball game between "Design Engineers" and "Operations Engineers" where there is a winner at the end of play. At least, I don't consider this even if some people may think of it as a playground or battlefield..

Office environment, a desk and fixed working hours are realities of a design career. As a senior operations person, I remember being summoned to the plant at the most odd hours during a breakdown. Honestly, I did not enjoy being summoned at 3:00 A.M. in the morning to the plant. Many of my colleagues and friends who are still in operations often tell me that they would not like their kids to pursue what they have been doing all their lives. Many young engineers whom I know and who work in operations have expressed their desire to move to an office environment. I have yet to meet a design engineer saying that he or she wants to permanently move into operations although a lot of them say that they would like some experience of plant commissioning and start-up.

I am a female engineer of 12 years experience in design, recently moved to a plant operations role. I love it and I believe that I will want to do this for the rest of my career because it seems so much more 'real'. I read this blog and comments with interest and hope to share my thoughts so other female engineers can have a balanced view.
Firstly, the reality is that people in general do not like change and female engineers ARE a change. Especially in the plant environment, where females are few and far between.
The majority (95%) of operations personnel I have met are fine, upstanding people who work hard and do not have a problem with women in their field. But there is ALWAYS that 5% (or one in 20) that do. So what is one to do? Pack up and go home? Work three times as hard to prove to them that you are as good as someone with a pair of balls? Shout discrimination? For me, none I am afraid. On the first, I love my job and won't be initmidated, after all I have another 30 plus years to work and I intend to enjoy them. Work harder - well I already work pretty damn hard and honestly, do I really think that this will change someones mind, given they have already pre-judged me based on nothing more than gender? No thanks. Complain about discrimination? Well, this is a difficult one - luckily for me the odd guy who has a problem is never ever my boss or someone who has any influence on my career. I prefer to pin it down to the fact that wherever you are, whatever you do, if you work with people there will always be conflict of some sort - so just push back. I believe that the handicap of being a woman is actually that most of us have been raised to 'play nice' and when someone doesn't we are shocked and confused and not sure what to do.
Compared to a design environment where political correctness is more well understood and practised the plant environment is down to earth and raw - therefore a female would expect to be confronted with more honest and open reactions. It doesn't mean that women are looked upon any differently between plant and office - just that office workers are less likely to say it out loud!
So what message do I want young women engineers just starting out in their careers, to take from this? Its simple - you are still a minority and over your career you will unfortunately meet the odd ****** who will look down on you as you are a female. But for every one of these idiots there are dozens of great people who will make your working life a pleasure so don't let that minority keep you from finding them.

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