Meet the project engineer on a mission to fix a leaking STEM pipeline

Fatima Bilal is a rising star at chemical engineering firm C-Capture and she’s determined to increase diversity in the STEM industries, writes Lizzie Murphy.
Fatima Bilal, a project engineer at  C-Capture in Leeds, with a  VLE Lab Scale model machine that finds out the vicosity  of C-Capture solvents with flow. Picture: Gary LongbottomFatima Bilal, a project engineer at  C-Capture in Leeds, with a  VLE Lab Scale model machine that finds out the vicosity  of C-Capture solvents with flow. Picture: Gary Longbottom
Fatima Bilal, a project engineer at C-Capture in Leeds, with a VLE Lab Scale model machine that finds out the vicosity of C-Capture solvents with flow. Picture: Gary Longbottom

When she was four years old, Fatima Bilal was left unable to walk after being prescribed large doses of medication during a bout of typhoid.

Her father was so furious with the level of healthcare his daughter received in their home country of Sudan that he set about seeking a better quality of life for his wife and four children elsewhere.

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While Ms Bilal learned to walk again, he decided to prepare to move the family to the UK for a brighter future.

“I was given a lot of valium to calm me down when I was sick and it messed up my whole body,” she says. “I was disabled for a year.”

She adds: “My dad wasn’t happy with the level of healthcare in Sudan. He wanted a better future for us.

“He had a map of the UK and put his finger on Edinburgh. There was no other thought to it.”

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Ms Bilal doesn’t remember living in Sudan as a child but she goes back every year to see her extended family. “I feel quite connected to there,” she says.

The move to the UK proved to be a success, with Ms Bilal discovering a passion for chemistry at school, which has led her to becoming a project engineer at carbon capture technology firm C-Capture in Leeds.

“My parents aren’t university educated but the rest of my family is and we always had this African household where you had to become a doctor or an engineer - there were two options and that’s how you became successful,” she says.

“I didn’t really know what engineering was at school but I enjoyed chemistry and maths.”

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After studying chemical engineering at Strathclyde University, she saw a graduate opportunity at C-Capture and moved to Leeds.

The Leeds University spin-out has developed a proprietary solvent which can remove carbon dioxide from power stations as well as cement, steel and aluminium plants.

Ms Bilal’s role includes managing the technical development and delivery of projects, including a current trial at Drax Power Station in Selby that could eventually see the site become the first negative emissions power station in the world.

As well as her day-to-day role, Ms Bilal is also working on a diversity and inclusion framework for the company.

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C-Capture is doing better on gender diversity than many other firms working in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) sectors with six female employees out of 20. But it wants to do better, she says.

“We want to fix the leaky pipeline of making sure that, at the decision-making level women and people from black and ethnic minorities and different backgrounds are represented at the company,” she adds.

“It’s looking at community outreach, it’s looking at ourselves critically and not being afraid to ask the hard questions and holding everybody to account. That’s what we’re attempting to put into place.

“We’re a very small team trying to do a lot but our CEO has marked this as one of the high priorities. We’re not just writing out a tweet, we’re actually trying to make a difference.”

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Ms Bilal started working at the company as a graduate two years ago when it was “five guys in a shed” but she was encouraged by the vision of the directors.

“They were willing for me to come in and grow with the company and have my voice heard,” she says.

“That was the selling point for me - somewhere I could make my opinion heard and not be afraid of them thinking ‘she’s too opinionated’ or the usual stereotypes that come with a woman who raises their opinions.”

She adds: “There’s definitely more I’d like to do with bringing in diversity, ensuring that there’s a clear path for growth and no ceiling.

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“I want to work with senior management and the people in the company to define what that personal development looks like and make sure it becomes a reality and not just a selling point for new recruits.”

The need to address the gender balance within STEM occupations is clear.

Women only make up about a quarter of all people employed in STEM industries and there is a feeling that women still need to “play by the rules” in order to succeed.

However, Ms Bilal believes the industry is slowly moving forwards. “You get the odd comment where they try to ‘mansplain’ everything to you and I have to say ’I know what you’re talking about. You don’t need to tell me what way’s up and what way’s down’,” she says.

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“It’s little things like that, that are still happening, mainly in the manufacturing/fabrication industries.”

Meanwhile, fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of expressing an unpopular view or simply the fear of offending others can dampen honest conversations about racial attitudes. But Ms Bilal believes it’s something we shouldn’t shy away from.

“There’s a stigma now and people are scared to say things but you have to remember that most people don’t go out of their way to discriminate.

“At work, we still have banter and it’s not about saying everything has to be PC. We just need to understand what our unconscious biases are and actually check ourselves,” she says.

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Although much of the focus is on gender and ethnic diversity, Ms Bilal believes diversity of thought is also an important factor for companies to consider.

“Ensuring that you’ve got diversity of thought and you’re not just box ticking how many women you’ve hired is the balance businesses need to achieve,” she says.

She adds: “None of us should be afraid to question things and hold the people in charge to account.”

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