Helen Dickinson

Helen Dickinson

Assistant Chief Executive

Local and Central Government

Helen Dickinson took an indirect – but highly rewarding – route to her post  reading the Energy and Transport Tax team at HM Treasury.

With a PhD in physical chemistry, she embarked on a civil service career that  took her into scientific-related roles with government departments – her first job as science policy adviser involved protecting the planet from asteroid strikes! She then went on to enjoy 3 years as science attaché at the British Embassy in Paris.

Her growing fascination with the interlinked subjects of science and economics spurred Helen on to re-train as an economist, and she secured a Treasury post focused on energy and climate strategy as she developed her career at the heart of government. From central government she moved into local government giving her a chance to return to her native Newcastle, where she is now Assistant Chief Executive of the city council.

During my university studies, about one-third of my fellow students were  women. When I’d decided to stay on and do my PhD at university, a head of department said to me: ‘Good, there aren’t enough role models in physical chemistry’. It was true – at the time, he couldn’t name more than one. It didn’t put me off at all as I’d never felt I was treated any differently as a woman anyway.

I do think role models make a difference. Whether consciously or subconsciously, they do signal that it’s possible to progress. Once you have a few high-profile  trailblazers, it’s probably true that more people will follow the same path.

Workplace culture should always be a consideration. When I took on a  permanent role at the Treasury, it was partly because of the culture there.

From the outside, I appreciate the Treasury can seem like an intimidating place. But perhaps because it’s one of the smaller government departments – and because it’s often saying ‘no’ to other departments! – it’s actually very supportive, collegiate and collaborative. There’s a lot of emphasis on those principles.

Whenever I’ve made an offshore visit, I’ve always found it exciting and  interesting. It reminds me of the challenges I’d experienced when I was doing  my PhD, except of course on a much bigger scale. People I spoke to offshore were focused on issues such as the reliability of pumps, the age of the equipment they were operating and securing spare parts. It brought home to me  the practical challenges of working in a mature province.

My career has followed a circuitous route. In the short term, that perhaps means it didn’t progress as quickly as it otherwise might have done. However, having that wider experience – experiencing different organisations and seeing  how they function – has been incredibly valuable and helped me to be successful
in the longer term.

When I’ve done things that I felt were mistakes, it was when I’ve not trusted my own judgement; I acted in a way that I felt I ought to rather than how I wanted to act. I’ve learned that being myself is actually a better way to achieve progress than acting as others expect you to. There are different ways to do jobs,  and the way that works best for me is the way that feels right for me.

It may sound a bit nerdy, but… One of the coolest things about my job is listening to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget speeches and Autumn statements, and looking out for the sections you’ve been involved in. For me, there’s a lot of job satisfaction in those moments.

“I’ve learned that being myself is actually a better way to achieve progress than acting as others expect you to.”
Where educated: Newcastle upon Tyne, Oxford University First job: Space Policy Adviser, Department for Trade and Industry
Advice to your 15-year-old self? Relax. Don’t be in a hurry to make decisions – and get advice from others.
A moment of inspiration? Not a moment, but a gradual realisation that the people in government who were doing things that I found fun about science were focused on numbers, evidence and data analysis. And they weren’t scientists – they were economists. It made me decide to re-train part-time as an economist.