Women in Tech: Rachel Fort

Development technologist for BP’s Edge team, Rachel Fort, discusses her career as a woman in the tech industry

What does your job involve?

I am a development technologist for BP’s Edge product development team, which is the top tier lubricant brand for Castrol. I develop new lubricants for Castrol Edge, and I also support products that we currently have out in the market. 

In terms of product development, this involves running engine test programmes to evaluate new additive chemistries and components. This, along with chemical and physical data on formulations, must meet a wide range of industry and car manufacturer specifications. I then work with procurement, supply chain, marketing and technical deployment colleagues to ensure the formulations are launched in market. I’m currently working on a global project, upgrading a large number of Castrol EDGE oils as a new industry specification is released.

We also have a wide portfolio of products in the market already. I’m the key contact for a major car manufacturer, and deal with any issues that our products meeting their specifications might have. I support colleagues in other product development teams in developing oils for this manufacturer.

What is your favourite part of the role?

My favourite thing is the cross-collaborative effort involved in every project, working with colleagues across different parts of the business in order to realise products in the market. I learn so much about areas outside Technology, but seeing the chemistry that I learned at school and university in action out in the real world is also great! 

Outside my day-to-day role I also chair the BP Women’s International Network (WIN) committee in Pangbourne. WIN is a series of women’s networking groups across BP. We aim to foster, develop and retain talented women in BP, by providing women with a forum for connecting with each other.

Through BP WIN I organise lots of events to increase awareness around gender parity issues, and to develop our members, such as panel talks with senior leaders on site, networking sessions, career talks and lunch discussions. It’s a great way to meet people, and learn things myself.

What is the most challenging part of the role?

Fresh off the graduate scheme, I was thrown in at the deep end and became BP and Castrol’s representative to Ford, one of our key customers. For a few months I was the only technologist working on that account; there was a lot to learn, and I had a lot of responsibility. It was a great experience and I was able to see some really cutting-edge stuff, but it was also a big challenge.

BP tends to give you a lot of responsibility early on, but there’s always a support network in place – they’re careful not to overwhelm you, but they do want to see what you’re capable of.

The most frustrating part of the job is dealing with the systems and how slow things can be to make their way through the company – it’s one of the downsides for working for such a large organisation.

Which education options did you choose to get your role?

I always liked understanding things and learning about why they happen. I especially like being able to take what I’ve learnt, and applying it – I think this applies to both STEM subjects and languages which were always my favourite subjects. I studied Chemistry, Maths and Spanish at A level, initially studying French in my first year at college, then switching to Further Maths in my second year, so I have AS levels in both of those as well. I found the decision about what to study at university difficult as I didn’t want to stop STEM or languages! In the end I opted for Chemistry, with a year abroad in Spain, so I kind of got to do both.

While at university I knew that I wanted to do a summer internship between my third and fourth year, and one of the companies I applied to was BP – they flew me back from Spain for my interview and offered me the internship! 

The internship was in Formulated Products Technology (FPT), where I still work now, in the investigational analysis team for 10 weeks over the summer. 

After completing my internship, BP offered me a role on the graduate scheme, to start when I finished university. I spent over two years rotating around different teams in FPT, before gaining a permanent role working in Global Lubricants Technology.

Now, I actually work part-time, as I am currently doing a PhD. So I work three days a week, and the other two I spend working on my PhD. My PhD is split between BP and King’s College London, and is based around modelling hydrocarbon properties. BP is really supportive of this and has allowed me the flexibility to fit my work around my PhD.

When you were considering your options, who influenced you?

During education, my friends, family and teachers had the biggest influence on me. 

Now I’m at BP I have a great network, made up of people that I’ve worked or interacted with from all of my roles throughout the graduate scheme, who I go to for advice. One of the best things about BP is that it’s a very supportive company. When I first joined, as well as my grad scheme line manager and my line manager for that placement, I also had a buddy assigned to me to get me used to all the systems and how the company runs, and also a mentor. 

Were there any barriers to STEM in education?

I always enjoyed STEM subjects at school (Maths was one of my favourites!), and never perceived a barrier while I was in education, but looking back I can see the paths that I didn’t take. 

I never even considered studying Engineering at university, mainly because I had no idea what it involved and wasn’t something I’d studied previously, I also didn’t study Physics at A-Level, and didn’t realise the impact that would have on my options. I think what was missing was role models, or an appreciation of how STEM subjects could be used practically to solve real world problems. That’s why think it’s really important for students to do all they can to keep their options open at A levels.

What would you say to girls considering their education options?

Try to get as much experience doing things outside of your degree as you can – whether that’s through work or extracurricular activities. It’s not all about studying and your grades – for example, during my BP interview I was able to draw on my experiences from being on the Canoe Club committee, and my time spent studying abroad. 

If you’re interested in a STEM career, I’d really recommend going to a BP campus event – they hold them at different universities across the UK and worldwide, or sign up for one of the BP discovery days, which are held at BP sites. They’re a great way to find out about the different roles in STEM and to meet people working for BP in the jobs that you might be interested in.

What might put them off a STEM career?  And how can these barriers be overcome?

I think that the lack of female role models across STEM, both in the media and in academia, and the very apparent ‘leaky pipeline’ can be off-putting. Studying chemistry there was actually a pretty even gender split at an undergraduate level, but at PhD, postdoc less-so.  

There’s also a perception that because you study STEM subjects, you have to be in a lab coat all the time. At an International Women’s Day event I organised to encourage women into STEM, twenty female GCSE students from local schools came to my site to find out the reality of what you can do with a STEM degree.

They went on tours of the science and engineering departments, but also met my colleagues with STEM backgrounds who have moved into marketing and commercial roles. They learnt about how you can take the skills you’ve gained from studying STEM subjects and apply them in different areas.

What needs to change to retain more women in STEM careers?

At BP, a lot of changes have already been made. As well as the Women’s’ International Network that I’m involved in, they have put in place measures to ensure women are recruited and retained. Minimum standards for recruitment and selection, called ‘Rules of the Road’, are diversity principles which support the talent team in recruiting high-quality, diverse talent. They also offer a huge range of flexible working options supported by a toolkit on “agile working” to help facilitate women (and men) to care for their families. 

It would be great to see these initiatives become more universal, but there’s still a great deal to be done both by BP and across the industry. Having the policies and standards in place is vital, but so is promoting inclusion at all levels.