HLN meets: Fiona Townend, Director of Research & Development at Procter & Gamble
P&G’s Fiona Townend on predicting future trends, recruiting more women and why not every scientific job is based in a lab
By Jo Dunbar
When thinking about STEM and women, Procter & Gamble is an obvious North East link. The multinational company has a centre of innovation based in Newcastle where 50% of the workforce are female.
We spoke to Fiona Townend, P&G’s Director of Research & Development, about her varied career, international work and seeing the gender gap close.
Tell us about your role.
I’m the Director of Research & Development in our Newcastle innovation centre. A lot of people get the impression that a STEM role would be in the lab wearing a white coat. Personally, I spend very little of my time in the lab. A lot of what I do is looking at future trends and looking at consumer behaviour. I’m more likely to be in somebody’s home than wearing a lab coat. I also manage a team, so part of my job is leading and coaching people. It’s a really diverse role and this is the reason I’m still at P&G after 21 years
Have you always been based in Newcastle?
No, I’ve had a huge range of different roles. We even moved to Beijing for six years, where my daughter was born. It’s very common in R&D careers to do big changes and move around, it helps keep people motivated and stimulated and you learn a lot, but you also find where your passions are.
Are there any projects that have been particularly memorable?
One of the standout projects for me was a water purification project. It was an innovation-led out of our centre in Newcastle, which was developing a sachet of five or six ingredients that you could add into muddy puddle water in Africa, stir it up, filter through a cloth, leave for 30 minutes and it would meet the US drinking water standard. Phil Souter, a colleague of mine, invented it and I worked with him on that project, which has had a massive impact around the world.
P&G always aims to develop projects that improve consumers lives. When children were dying from drinking contaminated water, that’s one where we really did make a monumental difference.
What are you researching now?
Now, my role is looking at disruptive innovations for the future, which means thinking of some of the challenges that will be happening in five to 10 years’ time and what we need to be thinking about now to address those problems. It’s super interesting.
Looking forward, there’s a looming challenge around water. Two-thirds of the global population are predicted to live in water-stressed areas by 2025. Nearly 60% of the global population is going to be living in cities. There’s a real danger that the water demands in cities worldwide are going to face significant challenges. A lot of P&G products use water in the home, so a lot of what I’m doing now is working on innovations to help increase water efficiency for our products.
Women working in STEM is a hot topic. Are you involved with recruiting women?
We recruit via internships. That has continued to happen throughout the pandemic, however, challenging it may have been. We recruit 50:50 men and women into research and development roles and our site in Newcastle feels incredibly balanced. I don’t stand out as being a minority at all. Our site leader is female and our recently retired head of R&D is a woman too. There are a lot of great role models in the company, but I’d say that this is quite a long way from my experience at school. For my A-Levels in Maths, Physics and Chemistry, I was the only girl in the class, so we’ve come a long way from that. I think it’s really important that from primary school, girls are encouraged to pursue maths and science.
How has that balance been achieved?
Equality and inclusion is a high priority and the conversation about women in Research & Development has changed quite a lot. It used to be one where women were supporting women and how we enabled that. Now I think the conversation is very much changed to be how do men and women work together. Having the men involved in the conversations and working collaboratively with women is so critical.
You’re based in Newcastle. What do you like best about the region?
I absolutely love living here. We have such a great quality of life. My husband, children and I love being outdoors, so the fact that we can be camping in the Lake District in two hours, or walking or cycling along the Northumberland coast is great. There’s also a vibrant city on our doorstep too and I love that. Everyone up here is so friendly and has been so welcoming.