Sarah Sordy’s life was changed by Mrs Riley, a chemistry teacher at Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School in Lincolnshire, who believed her pupils should never shy away from male-dominated professions.
A talented maths and science student, 17-year-old Sarah was encouraged to go on a work placement that allowed her to have a close encounter with a fighter jet.
She recalled: “My chemistry teacher was keen to support anybody who had a different outlook on where they wanted to take their career, so she arranged for me to do some work experience at RAF Cranwell. I got to wear a flight suit and be in a Harrier jump jet. I loved it.”
Today, Ms Sordy is plant manager at Mars Petcare in Birstall, West Yorkshire, where she’s responsible for 10 production lines of pet products in a facility that never sleeps.
Her current job may seem a world away from the types of engineering used by the RAF, but it shows that careers linked to STEM subjects – that’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics – are incredibly diverse.
Her placement on the RAF base provided a powerful illustration of the practical uses of science and the importance of working as a team to solve problems.
Ms Sordy said: “I was probably pre-disposed to it (engineering). I had always been very practical. But knowing what to do with it is a different thing. I was quite comfortable doing mechanics and physics, I loved the practical aspect of it.”
After a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Birmingham, she joined Mars Petcare as a graduate trainee after being impressed by the job description.
She said: “It seemed to sum up all the best bits of engineering. It was problem solving, team work and creativity.
“I can’t build a factory without having a sheet metal works and boilers and compressors. The production and manufacturing environment is a real collection of lots of different engineering skills. The creativity comes from taking all that and making something.”
Over the last 18 years, she has steadily worked her way up through the ranks. She became chief engineer at Mars Petcare Europe in 2008, and was promoted to the role of plant manager in Birstall, at the age of 38, two years ago.
“The Birstall facility had its 30th birthday last year,’’ said Ms Sordy. “There are just over 300 associates working on site, over 200 of them are involved in manufacturing. We make pet care and treats products. The Mars ambition is to make a better world for pets.
“We’ve got that opportunity to create a bonding moment between owners and pets. That’s where the manufacturing and science and R&D (research and development) comes together as well.
“Yorkshire is the birthplace of care and treats. Celebrating the 30th birthday was fabulous. The factory and infrastructure have stood the test of time. We have a super clean environment. It’s more in line with a food preparation facility than a factory.
“Some of our raw material suppliers are also Yorkshire-based. It makes sense for us to have support in the local community. We’re a global business; we import a lot from across the globe and Europe but we have local suppliers who add value.”
The lack of women in UK engineering is causing a major headache for a sector that is respected worldwide. Ms Sordy doesn’t believe there is a magic formula that will crack the problem overnight, but she hopes to make a difference, just by telling her story. She said: “From my experience, it was all about understanding what it (engineering) was all about and demystifying it.
“It’s about the opportunity to share the reality. When I was growing up, if someone said they were an engineer, you immediately thought of somebody like a car mechanic with an overall and spanner.
“How do you change that stereotype, so that when people say ‘engineer’ they think more broadly? We’ve got mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, who are all working in the support of producing pet food.
“I just endeavour to get my story out there. I want to do what Mrs Riley, the chemistry teacher did for me, and share what’s possible and showcase women in engineering. So we’re working with our graduate marketing team to make sure that when the engineering development scheme is on the web, it’s not just (attracting) boys.
“There are simple and subtle things you can do that make people stop and think; things like imagery are important. There was a study done which showed that if females write job descriptions, more females will apply for those roles.
“There is a saying, ‘If you do what you always do, you’ll get what you always got’.
“So you need to be disruptive sometimes. It’s about changing and breaking some of those stereotypes. Times have changed and it’s almost like common perceptions haven’t caught up with some of that.”
Ms Sordy believes manufacturing is the ultimate team sport, where every employee’s contribution is valued. She still sounds like the teenager whose passion for engineering was fired by a trip to meet the RAF a quarter of a century ago.
“It’s about creating an environment where the team works together to deliver great results,” she said. “Opening up those opportunities for others, and nurturing talent to support people to be the best they can be, is hugely rewarding.”
Sarah Sordy factfile
Date of birth: May 1977
Education: MEng (Hons) Mechanical Engineering with Language.
What was your first job: ICI engineering sponsorship 1995-1999, then started at Mars in 2000
What is your favourite holiday destination: Spain – I love the sun and the food!
Car driven: BMW Z4
Last book read: The Midnight Line – Lee Child
Favourite song: Dakota – Stereophonics
What is the thing you are most proud of? Achieving what I set my heart on; travelling the world, speaking French, playing rugby, being a chief engineer, running a complex factory.