“Be true to yourself.”, With Penny Bauder & Sheona Barlow

Keep your identity and femininity — be kind, respectful, honest and genuine. I believe that being true to yourself is recognized by others quickly, and builds trust. I think if I’d tried to be like my male colleagues, I would have failed as I wouldn’t be trusted for being me. As a part of my series […]

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Keep your identity and femininity — be kind, respectful, honest and genuine. I believe that being true to yourself is recognized by others quickly, and builds trust. I think if I’d tried to be like my male colleagues, I would have failed as I wouldn’t be trusted for being me.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheona Barlow.

Sheona Barlow joined materials science business W. L. Gore & Associates (UK) Limited on the day after she left school aged 17. Her first role was as the plant receptionist in Dundee, and over 34 years she’s risen to the role of Plant Leader, making her the figurehead for 150 Associates with responsibility for the plant’s smooth running and financial health. During her tenure Sheona has worked across sales, testing, product development, project management and manufacturing, giving her an unrivalled overview of many roles within the Enterprise. Sheona’s current role is wide-ranging and demanding. She has responsibility for quality management systems, supply chains, anything compliance related including environmental, health and safety, as well as being a key player in Gore’s COVID-19 management team.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Itwas a chance conversation with my next door neighbour that led me to work in the materials science industry. I was aged just 17 at the time. I used to see my neighbour on the way back from school and she used to tease me, asking ‘have you not got a job yet?’ One day she mentioned that there was a receptionist role going where she worked, at W.L. Gore & Associates and she asked if I wanted an application form. The rest is history. I started the day after I left school. Truthfully, I didn’t know anything about Gore. I just wanted to get into the job market as soon as possible. Had I worked in a bank or for the council, my life might be very different now.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Oh gosh, I’ve been at Gore for 34 years now so there’s a lot of memories and highlights to look back on. I’ve spent time working out in Delaware at Gore HQ, I’ve been involved in the Dundee Plant being awarded a Space Centre of Excellence status, which I’m really proud of, and I’ve worked with some phenomenally smart and inspiring individuals over the years — Bob Gore included. His father founded the business with his wife back in 1958.

One anecdote always makes me laugh though when I think back to it. I was present when the Queen came to officially open our new plant in Dundee. It was such a funny day. The building was covered in security, there were guard dogs everywhere and all of the entrances and exits were blocked. I remember a big group of Associates, myself included, piled into a lift to get to where we needed to go downstairs, and the lift broke. Such comical timing! The rest of the Royal visit was fine. The Queen seemed lovely, she did a tour, spoke to lots of Associates and unveiled a plaque in our canteen. I’ll always look back and remember the panic on our faces when the lift broke though….

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was 17 years old and hadn’t learned to drive. Every night after work I walked for the bus. One evening an Associate offered me a lift home as he lived close to me — I was so new that I didn’t know everyone well, and thought this Associate was the plant leader, Ken. I was pretty petrified about what to say to the ‘plant leader’ and accepted the lift but didn’t say a word all the way home. It was a several days (and a few lifts) later that I discovered that the kind associate wasn’t Ken at all, it was Kevin! Kevin was a purchasing associate at the time. They both had dark hair and moustaches, and names that started with ‘Ke’. I laughed to myself when I discovered my mistaken identity, and didn’t admit it to anyone for a long time as I was a bit embarrassed to be so scared to talk to any Gore associate.

Lesson : Accept kindness and feel able to chat to anyone, Plant Leader or not — I would have felt more comfortable, and might have realised my mistaken identity more quickly.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Gore has a start up mentality, despite being sixty years old. We have a distinctive culture that fosters collaboration, commitment and innovation. We still maintain the beliefs and principles of freedom, fairness, commitment, decision making and respect set out by our founders Bill and Vieve Gore. I expect many businesses have similar values, but it’s how we live these principles in the way that we work with one another, our partners and customers that sets us apart.

Everyone that works at Gore is more than an employee. We call ourselves ‘Associates’ to reflect that we are trusted stewards of the Enterprise. Everyone is a shareholder, so we’re all really committed. We don’t have a traditional hierarchy or conventional job titles, so rather than managers we have ‘Leaders.’ And our lattice structure allows us to collaborate and communicate without the traditional chains of command. It’s an environment that allows highly motivated people to thrive. I’ve been at Gore all my working life, so it’s all that I know. But it doesn’t suit everyone.

One of our founders Vieve Gore visited Dundee in 1987 — she was one of the most personable, genuine and authentic people I have ever met. Before our official opening, Vieve went out of her way to chat to an Associate’s wife who was sitting alone in the canteen. I soon discovered that she regularly did this to help people feel included and valued.

I met Vieve once or twice in my very early years in Dundee, only ever for a few minutes.

Several years later I was visiting our plants in Newark, Delaware. One evening, an Associate took me to the local theatre and I saw Vieve at the interval. She came straight over to me and said ‘I recognise you. You’re a Gore Associate, but you’re not from around here. I hope you’re having a lovely evening’. I couldn’t believe that Vieve would recognise me from all the Associates she’d met over the years, from all over the world — it definitely made me feel like I counted.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Always! Associates look at the world and see endless opportunities to improve life every day. We’ve got divisions that have helped put men on the moon, that have helped man scale the highest mountains and that help keep people alive via our medical division. We’re always developing new things that make a positive contribution to society. Many of them involve us helping our customers products work in the most demanding environments — including space, below the sea, within our hearts and within the heat of a fire. To date we have 2991 worldwide patents that cite the discovery of our core polymer ePTFE — and that number goes up each year as we’re restless in our curiosity and commitment.

Right now Gore is working with partners on the fight against COVID-19. Several initiatives are underway that utilise our materials science expertise and production facilities. For instance, we’re engineering a prototype reusable mask to cover the face of medical staff, and we’re working with others to create medical gowns using Gore-Tex’s laminates (although this is not the intended use, refer to statement on We’re also collaborating on a universal filter cartridge prototype for use in respirators. It’s really rewarding knowing that we can help.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I can see so much positive change from when I was younger. I remember when I was 17 I started studying Electrical and Electronic Engineering at my local college as part of a workplace learning scheme. I was the only female on the course, and when I walked into the room on my first day one of the boys turned and said to me: “I think you’re in the wrong classroom, dear. Home Economics is downstairs.” I remember thinking he was so rude, and it made me quite determined to show him ‘I can do this too’!

Thankfully schools are actively promoting STEM subjects much better now. I have a daughter so I can see how much things have changed. Employers have much better diversity policies now so the opportunities are definitely there for women.

But it’s not all reliant on education and the workplace. I actually think that the unconscious perception of ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ subjects or careers starts at a much younger age, and parents need to take responsibility for that too. Why is it that girls are given dolls and boys are given Lego or Meccano sets? From a young age we’re unconsciously telling children what they should enjoy.”

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I’ve been lucky in my career. I haven’t had any incidents of gender prejudice at Gore, and overall it’s viewed as a diverse employer, but the statistics industry-wide paint a poor picture. The Women’s Engineering Society reported that only 21% of people that work in the sector are women. That’s really disappointing. It’s such a fascinating and fulfilling industry to work in. And it doesn’t look like it’s set to change either as the number of girls taking physics at A’Level seems to hold steady at around 20% each year.

That said, the Royal Academy of Engineering published a report at the start of this year that found that the gender pay gap is smaller in the engineering profession than the UK employee average. So the problem we have is one of attracting women into the profession, not of opportunity and compensation when they are in it.

I’m going to make a huge generalization about the difference of men and women at work. I often see women tend to be perfectionists, whilst men are more get-on-with-it. I think women can tend to question their abilities, whilst men seem more confident about their outputs. Having grown up in a society that has always painted scientists and engineers as men, it’s only natural that the stereotype makes women question their abilities in that field. Despite working for a really progressive employer I definitely question my own abilities more than some of my male counterparts.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

The first myth I suppose would be that there’s aren’t opportunities for women within STEM businesses. That’s just not the case. I work with so many talented women at Gore in our UK plants and those overseas too. I do a lot of work in the areas of diversity, equality and inclusion, and I ensure that these things are promoted during the hiring process so everyone knows that they are welcome if they have the right abilities and mindset. We don’t positively discriminate, but we’re very welcoming.

The second myth would be that it’s harder for women to take on leadership positions. I started as a receptionist without any specialist scientific qualifications, so If I can continuously climb the ladder over 34 years in an industry I fell into by accident, then other women that are ambitious and talented can get a seat at the table too. There are countless women in leadership roles at Gore — and our former CEO, Terri Kelly, was a woman too. Within the UK our manufacturing leadership team has a 50/50 male to female split so the opportunities are there for the taking. Women just need to believe in ourselves and let a few of those old fashioned stereotypes go….

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Keep your identity and femininity — be kind, respectful, honest and genuine. I believe that being true to yourself is recognized by others quickly, and builds trust. I think if I’d tried to be like my male colleagues, I would have failed as I wouldn’t be trusted for being me.

Be strong and courageous. It would have been very easy for me to give up after my initial introduction to college, but I persevered and showed determination to succeed.

Build a network and learn from the experience and knowledge of others. You don’t always need to know all the answers, but it’s powerful to know who to ask for help and support.

Help others and let others help you. Development is a 2-way relationship, and we all have different strengths, experiences and ideas. We can always learn from one another.

Be a team player, and take appropriate responsibility while encouraging others to do the same. Communicate clearly and listen to understand — again this helps to build relationships, and ultimately helps the team to succeed.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

I think it’s really important to be authentic and consistent. Don’t try to conform to fit in or impress others. People will see through it.

Communication is another really important skill. It’s essential to be clear and concise when you’re giving instructions. People don’t like being dictated to, so I always try to influence people instead.

Listen to (really) understand. Listening is a really underrated skill, but people appreciate you taking the time to really listen and understand what they are saying.

Lead by example — show drive, determination and dedication. Be seen as part of the team. And always deliver what you’ve promised to do. Prove that you work hard and deliver results too.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

My advice would be to learn more about everyone’s role that you’re leading. Find a way to put yourself into their shoes and understand their challenges and opportunities. It’s really benefitted my career that I’ve worked across different functions in the business, and spent time working at our US HQ, to gain a broad understanding of everyone’s role and the pressures they are under. During my career I’ve worked in sales, testing, product development, project management and manufacturing — there’s not many roles I haven’t done at one point or another! This helps me get the best out of my team, as know how to communicate with them, what success looks like, what’s holding certain teams back.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I think the 2 Associates that I owe the biggest debt of thanks to for my career trajectory would be our former HR Associate and my Sponsor, Ann Gillies. I had been working within the engineering division for a long time, and was beginning to get itchy feet. I’d had several different commitments at Gore by this point, and for the first time I was really stuck about what I could do next. Truthfully it never entered my head to leave the business! My sponsor suggested to me that I should consider a Manufacturing Leadership position — and I needed a lot of convincing by our HR Associate! I was really nervous about leading others and had never worked in manufacturing before. I was worried about failure, but Ann gave me the confidence to take this leap and I’ve never looked back.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’d like to think that I’ve helped and guided many associates through the years. I’ve shared my experiences and learnings to help others to respond to challenges and ultimately succeed. I sponsor (mentor) a number of associates and have suggested development opportunities along the way. Some of these associates have transitioned to leadership commitments, and are now sharing their experiences with others.

On a more personal level, I have encouraged my 2 children to work hard at school and understand the importance of a strong work ethic. My son graduated in Computer Science and is enjoying his career as a Software Developer. My daughter is still at school, but is extremely driven — she is focused on all the STEM subjects, and wants a future career in Medicine or Science. I feel immensely proud that I have supported and encouraged them to reach for the stars.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Improve health and wellbeing within society by showing kindness, and supporting one another

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Take control of you own destiny — fight for your dreams

I have been very fortunate and had support from many associates over the years. However, I have worked hard with grit and determination to achieve my goals — they weren’t gifted.

We can all take knocks in life, and it’s how we choose to respond that helps define us.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Michelle Obama

I would love to talk to Michelle about her life experiences — she is a strong independent lady who has continued to demonstrate humility, good humour and grace.

Although Michelle is largely known as the previous President’s wife, her public service work pre-dates that life. I’d be interested to hear from Michelle about her Harvard education, and her work inspiring children, as well as the challenges she’s faced, and how she’s overcome them.

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