Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Pinterest 
Gayle Harrison
Dr Gayle Harrison


Gayle chose chemistry partly because there were so few women in science; now she finds her approach to the subject works for marketing too.

Gayle tells us, in her own words, how the skills she built up through studying chemistry have enabled her to excel in a career in marketing.

Inspiration

It was my Dad who first inspired me to study science. He was a university lecturer, first in minerals engineering, then environmental science and then forensic science, so I remember growing up and visiting him in the lab and finding it all very exciting. I didn’t find chemistry at school particularly interesting, but once I reached A-level, it all started to fit into place. I had one great teacher who inspired us all when we got to see how sodium and potassium reacted with water, and seeing the science actually happen before my eyes was what really spurred me on. I loved building an understanding of why things did what they did, and I enjoyed the practical element of it, which in some ways made it seem like an art as well as a science.

By university I was hooked, and had some fantastic lecturers who were not only brilliant communicators (not your stereotypical dry, geeky scientists), but were doing some really interesting research that made me start to understand more about the practical applications of what I had learned. I loved the fact that you would learn some theory, then there were experiments you could do to see it in practice. That was why I chose chemistry over the physical sciences, as they always seemed too theoretical. The main challenges were the long hours – most of my friends were studying humanities, so whilst I was stuck in lectures or labs, they were all out having fun!

The fact that there were so few women in science was another reason for my choosing chemistry. I hated the idea that sciences be seen as a ‘man’s thing’, and I wanted to show that women were just as able to apply themselves. I had a secret ambition to be the first female chemistry lecturer at my university, but things moved in different directions in the end!

From PhD to marketing

I knew I wanted to do something in business after my PhD, but I was keen to hold onto my scientific background, so I applied to big companies that had some link to my studies: ICI, BP, Glaxo. I always imagined I would stay in an industry that was quite close to chemistry. In the end I decided to start working for L’Oreal: it was a business that invested heavily in R&D, and I liked the fact that I understood a bit about the formulations and chemistry involved. What l’Oreal spotted was that I had a good ‘marketing head’, which meant that I was good at the data and analysis side of things, which is really important in commercial roles, but also that I had a creative streak, which would serve me well in a marketing career.

Gayle Harrison in front of Heineken bottles

I now work in marketing for Heineken, one of the biggest brewers in the world. I look after a portfolio of brands with a retail value of £3bn per year. My role involves developing brands and creating as much shareholder value from those brands as I can. It’s a very varied job: I need to work very close-in to consumers, understanding what motivates them to do certain things; I do lots of creative things like developing new advertising campaigns, and I also need to work on long-term strategy, innovation pipelines and development of business plans. 

Unlike many people’s preconceptions, marketing is both a science and an art. I like the fact that I need to get heavily into data and analysis one minute, and the next need to pull back and think about long-term strategy. I like the fact that one day it’s all about spreadsheets and numbers, whilst the next it’s about packaging design and developing a TV ad.

I think there are many similarities between chemistry and marketing. As I said before, chemistry for me is both an art and a science. Doing a PhD involves creative thinking as well as lots of analysis. My chemistry background taught me to think laterally, to be curious and to ask lots of questions, things that are critical for a career in business. 

Diversity

When I was at university, there were no female chemistry lecturers. I am sure things have improved since then, but it is a sad fact that in all industries, women drop out before they reach senior roles. This is a huge issue that needs to be addressed by employers. It has been shown that in businesses that positively discriminate towards women, performance is significantly better than in those that don’t, so not only is it morally wrong, it is losing businesses money! And in education, it is even more critical, as we won’t have the pipeline of females coming through.

I think it is important to create role models that can talk passionately about chemistry. My role models were all men, and whilst this didn’t put me off (in fact in my case, it pushed me on!) I think it would have been hugely inspiring to have seen lectures or read books from successful women in the industry. I also think it is important to share the diverse range of careers you can go into after studying chemistry. Mine is not one people would expect following a chemistry PhD, but I am sure my educational background has helped me to succeed.

Interview by Charlotte Still and Stephen McCarthy 
Images © MPP Image Creation/Royal Society of Chemistry 

More faces...