Welcome to International Women’s Day (IWD)! This month, to celebrate IWD, an annual, global event that promotes gender parity and inclusivity, we will introduce you to strong, smart and successful Vale women from Canada and the U.K. This week we meet Sustainability coordinator Fiona (Fi) Sharp from our Clydach Nickel Refinery (CNR) in Wales, UK. Ready to be inspired? Read on!
For many of us, the line between what we study at school and where we end up in our careers can be a wiggly one. That’s what happened with Fi. She started in administration, then went into finance and IT at a couple of local colleges, which included a job as an IT library facilitator where she provided IT, literacy and numeracy support to students. During this role she studied business information technology and then studied business administration and management at the University of South Wales in the U.K. While she enjoyed working with students, she couldn’t shake her long-held desire to work in the environmental field.
Over the years, Fi made it her mission to learn as much as she could about environmental issues by reading, researching, talking to experts and others who shared her passion. Financially, she wasn’t in a position to quit her job to pursue a degree in environmental science, but she could teach herself. And she did.
In 2006, a friend alerted her to an administrator position at Vale’s CNR and Fi jumped at the opportunity. “The job involved working for the Compliance and Environment superintendents. I did a lot of basic administration work, as you would expect, but I also did environmental data collection, liaising with environmental regulators and some emissions monitoring, among other things,” she explained.
A year later, Fi was qualifying herself with an IEMA practitioner certification, which was funded by Vale. IEMA, the Institute of Environment Management and Assessment, is the largest professional body for environmental practitioners in the U.K. and worldwide. Two years after that, in 2009, Fi’s role became solely focused on Environment, which suited her to a tee.
Choice: your children or your job
It may sound like an easy, seamless transition – but a lot was going on behind the scenes. For one, or should we say two, Fi gave birth to two daughters in the years leading up to her joining Vale – one daughter was born in 1989, and the other in 1992.
“When I had my first daughter, maternity leave was very short and there was no option to go back part-time. It had to be full-time or nothing. I really enjoyed the work, but I wanted to take care of my newborn. I had no choice but to give up my job.”
With her second daughter, Fi was back at work after 12 weeks of paid maternity. The maximum paid leave in the U.K. at the time was 18 weeks, according to Fi, and today mat leave is 52 weeks.
Career change? Can do!
As her daughters grew and Fi worked fulltime during the day, she continued her self-directed learning at night. “I’d put the girls to bed then study for my business and IT qualifications, and I’d also read as much as I could about the environment until midnight or 1 a.m.,” she recalled. “By the time I joined Vale I was in my 40s and my daughters were teenagers. I think this speaks to the ability to change your career, whenever you want, if you have the drive and determination to do it.”
Today, Fi is an active member and mentor of Vale’s Women’s + Allies Network and she is part of Clydach’s Diversity and Inclusion Council. For her, this year’s International Women’s Day theme, #BreaktheBias, is about “breaking the culture” around gender stereotypes and expectations.
The strength to speak up
“We need to build relationships in a way where everyone treats each other as equal, feels they have the right to speak up when something is not acceptable, and has the opportunity to explain why.
“With age comes the strength to speak up,” Fi continued. “To say things like: ‘I’m happy to help, but don’t come to me expecting me to do the task for you because I’m a woman.’ Thankfully,” she stated, “this isn’t something I’ve dealt with for a while now.”
Fi said the way women are treated, and the roles available to women, are much better now. “The majority of people have awareness around gender issues, and we have women here in Operations, on the Technical team and in our Traffic office – compared to the way it used to be, which was primarily admin support roles. We are also seeing better facilities for women and properly fitting PPE,” she said, adding, “Yes, it’s a lot better.”8