Dame Judith Hackitt
A chemical engineering graduate of Imperial College in London, she spent 15 years moving through the ranks of Esso’s chemicals business. She then worked with an organic chemicals company before joining the Chemical Industries Association, going on to become its Director General. She subsequently worked for the association’s European counterpart organisation in Brussels.
Dame Judith was appointed Chair of the Health and Safety Commission in 2007 and assumed the same role with successor body the Health and Safety Executive in 2009. She left HSE in 2016 and now has a portfolio career in which she chairs EEF, the Manufacturers Organisation, and SEMTA, the skills body for Engineering and Manufacturing. Dame Judith is also on the Board of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.
She was made a CBE in 2006 for services to health and safety, and a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2016 for services to engineering and health and safety. Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy the government announced an Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, to ensure a robust regulatory system for the future and to ensure people feel safe in the buildings they live in. Dame Judith led this review – the final report was published May 2018.
My big plan at school was to become a teacher. I decided that I wanted to be a science teacher, and a good one at that. I felt the best teachers were those who could explain the wider purpose of learning – why things were important. So I thought: I’ll do a degree, work in industry for a while, then become a teacher.
But I enjoyed my first job so much that I stayed for 15 years. Teaching ambitions abandoned!
At university, the girls on my course were treated as a bit odd. There were five of us in an intake of 75 – the most they’d ever had, but it wasn’t unusual for people to ask us: ‘What makes a girl do chemical engineering?’ All five of us encountered that attitude, but we all had good answers. A lot of the boys on the course had no idea why they were doing it. We had at least given it some thought, because we were often asked to explain it.
It’s important to retain control of your career. When I was with Esso, it was clear there was a long career path ahead of me but I didn’t know how far along that path I would go.
“I chose to take control and manage my own career.”
I loved working there, but I realised they wanted me to join the international circuit and work abroad. My husband and I both had careers, and we had two young daughters: we could see that managing dual careers abroad, together with family priorities, was going to be difficult so I decided to move on.
We need to do more to retain women in industry. It’s one thing to encourage girls into STEM subjects and careers, but why haven’t we made progress in tackling retention? Women want to work, but they don’t want to sell their souls. Why does it have to be all or nothing?
It’s a very important issue, and balance is the key. How many men look back at their lives at the age of 60 and ask: ‘Where did it all go? My kids have grown up and I’ve missed it all.’ I honestly don’t have any regrets because I made time for my family. Other than emergency situations, for example, I’ve never worked at weekends. Such times were for my family.
Going to Buckingham Palace to receive my Honours was cool. It felt like validation of the fact I’d ploughed my own furrow – and been successful in doing so.
Advice to your 15-year-old self?You can do this. Be more confident, and don’t harbour self doubt.
A moment of inspiration? Any time when I’ve felt I’m blazing a trail. After two years in my first job they made me a plant supervisor. I was just 23 years old, and the first female in that role. It’s inspiring to know you’re showing others what’s possible.