IWD 2020: Q&A with Sarah Dixon, UK General Manager at Praxair Surface Technologies

Author
Kye Parkin
Communications Executive | Business West
9th March 2020

As part of International Women’s Day, we interview Sarah Dixon, on her role at Praxair Surface Technologies, her views on women in business and what a more gender-balanced worldview means to her.

Tell us about your role?

I am the General Manager of Praxair Surface Technologies (PST) in the UK. We have three production facilities located in Swindon, Weston Super Mare and Lincoln. Our team of more than 300 employees produce and sell high performance coatings that protect parts during the manufacturing and operations to make them more efficient.

I am responsible for operations, sales, engineering and production activities for predominantly aviation and technology driven customers. This means setting strategy with our teams and executing it, seeking feedback from customers to continuously improve our products, and working with our people to exceed customers’ expectations.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

What I love about it is the sheer breadth and diversity of our activities and the relentless focus on customer satisfaction, so we’re always looking to anticipate what’s next. That requires highly skilled people who are always curious and determined to find better ways to do things. I enjoy working with our energetic people to do this.

Our technology helps move millions of people globally every day, but people typically don’t think about surface coatings. So, whether you’re on a plane or using electronics, our surface coatings contribute to ensuring that product works effectively so the end user has a great experience.

And what are the most challenging aspects?

As we deal with flight critical components, the main challenge is ensuring everyone is focused on delivering operational excellence in quality and safety, every minute of every day. At PST, we hold regular training sessions to ensure our people understand the requirements and we use customer feedback to identify areas for improvement. It’s critical to enable our employees to share their views too as they are closest to the operations. Having a listening strategy in place for our internal communications is vital too so that we have a culture to facilitate their opinions and put them into action.

What 3 things do you think you need to progress as a woman in business?

The UK has one of the lowest rates in Europe for women in engineering at less than 10 percent. We need visible role models to encourage young women into the profession. But once they come in, research shows there are several factors that impede progress, resulting in a leaky talent pipeline where it becomes more difficult to develop senior leaders. Childcare responsibilities, gender bias, structural bias, and the lack of sponsors and mentors all have a significant impact. I am glad to see the direction of conversation changing in business on the role culture plays in creating and developing a diverse and inclusive workplace.

What are the biggest challenges the future generation of women in business face?

All leaders will continue to face challenges of improving the diversity within business and encouraging diversity of thought, while maintaining strong operational foundations and supporting the work-life balance. 

It starts with challenging unconscious bias and engagement with schools and colleges to raise the profile of women in business. Research shows that even female entrepreneurs have bigger obstacles in obtaining funding for their start-ups, so we have to continuously ask: what assumptions are being brought to the table? What is the de facto impact of the way we are doing things? How do we create partnerships that deliver win-win outcomes? 

What can the next generation bring to business that previous generations may not have?

As we’re a global community, it is easier to some extent to source ideas and bring different voices into the conversation. The next generation will certainly bring a different way of thinking that challenges business to question processes and methods. The pace of technological developments mean that we are no longer a linear and sequential world and we are far more demanding that business reflects our personal values. 

Hopefully, the next generation will continue disrupting our current business practices and will challenge us all to do better and adapt far more quickly.

What does a more gender-balanced worldview mean for you?

Diversity of thought. Challenge the ordinary. Create a more inclusive and dynamic future in business.

How can we enable more women to take a place at the board-room table?

It is our responsibility to break the glass ceiling and encourage women to apply, have the courage to do something differently, and keep pushing to develop their careers. This is through improving visibility and supporting mentorship programs. Women also face the barrier of not being in the right networks that broker these relationships to get onto boards which are highly competitive. You must earn your right to be on the board through strong work performance.

How can businesses evolve to be more gender-balanced?

I think this requires several things. The first is realising that leadership comes in many different styles. Challenging hiring techniques will help to address unconscious bias along with being more open to experiencing diverse thoughts and concepts, rather than sticking to the norm.

What advice would you give to young women and men starting out in business today in context of promoting a more diverse worldview? 

Listen to differing perspectives, thoughts and ideas, be inclusive and promote engagement at all levels and don’t be afraid to FAIL (First Attempt in Learning). This is not intuitive because of the emotional investment and cost of trying to build a business. But if there’s one thing I have learned during my career, it is that mindset affects how we interpret developments and develop solutions. So, don’t stop challenging the norm, no matter how tough the resistance. 

What women inspire you and why?

Emmeline Pankhurst – “Underestimate the power of a fearless woman at your peril.” 

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