Emma Brown

“An apprenticeship was a no-brainer”

The 26-year-old engineer from Ellesmere Port on avoiding student debt, the lack of female managers in her industry, and the importance of joining a union.

The UK has the lowest proportion of women engineers in the EU.

Less than 10% of our engineers are female.

In 2010 I turned down an offer from Sheffield University to do Unilever’s school-leaver apprentice programme instead.

I worked full-time at their research and development lab in Port Sunlight, studying part-time alongside. It was tough studying after a long day at work, but it was a no-brainer. To know that I could get the degree I wanted, while working in an international company and getting experience every day, I’d have been crazy to turn down the opportunity.

Unilever had stopped offering apprenticeships about 20 years ago and was only taking on graduates.

They were still using apprentices in the factories, but not in research and development. But they realised they weren’t getting the skillsets they needed.

An apprenticeship is certainly not an easy option but I really enjoyed it.

After four years of hard work, I had a first class honours degree in Chemistry and a permanent position at Unilever. My job was to develop new technologies for laundry detergents. I worked for them until early 2016.

In meetings I was often the only woman, but I never experienced direct sexism, thankfully.

In terms of scientists on the ground, it seems very even, but career progression isn’t that good. Of the 15 or so managers on my floor, only one was a woman. That’s not about the industry though – it’s a societal issue.

I’ve realised the value of being part of a union.

At Unilever, my union, Unite, was heavily involved in making sure people were getting fair pay and career progression opportunities. People are sometimes treated unfairly in a big company and it’s always valuable to have a bigger collective on your side – someone to fight your corner.

Unilever’s programme has expanded since my day.

It’s massive now – they take apprentices in all areas of the business.

I’m 26 now and I’ve got seven years of work experience.

As a new graduate without that industry experience, I wouldn’t have got the job I have now [as a technical support officer at the University of Liverpool’s Materials Innovation Factory]. Apprenticeships are even more important now with the costs of going to university. I’ve got no student debt at all – it was paid for me all the way through.