A passion for geography, making a difference, and podcasts…

Karen Dalton, RPS Director of Site Investigation and Marine Consenting


Karen is Director of Site Investigation and Marine Consenting and Environment in Energy. Her training and background is in marine geophysics. She talks about how her love of geography led her to her ideal career, as well as her 20+ years working in the energy sector.

QWhat was your career path?

I thought it was going to be in marketing, while I was trying to figure out what to do, but I actually got here by failing various exams at school! That was when I decided to focus on what I actually loved, rather than what I thought I should do.

I grew up near Aberdeen. The oil industry was THE place to work and my Dad worked for Shell. I did business studies after school because I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and had a place to study marketing at university, but after failing the marketing exam (there’s a theme here!) I realised, that's not me – what do I love? It was geology and the sea. I got The Times clearing pages out, found the best course and spoke to the Dean of Science who was Scottish. I didn't have the right qualifications but he could tell by the way I talked that I was passionate about it and gave me a chance. I worked my socks off and went from Scotland to university in Wales.

After working for a survey company offshore, I went back and did my PhD in engineering geophysics – sponsored by Hydrosearch, who became the start of RPS Energy. I've been here 20 years, and it's been incredibly challenging through the peaks and troughs of the Energy sector but hugely rewarding as we’ve grown and evolved.

Quick Q&A

Which woman or women inspire you?

It’s an interesting one, as there are many. However – don’t laugh – I love following Carol Vorderman on Instagram! She's obviously a really savvy businesswoman and she inspires younger people through her businesses and work with charities and the RAF. She has fun. She is breaking down those perceptions of woman being defined by your age and she’s just living life.

Which woman scientist or pioneer should people know more about?

I listened to Jo Da Silva talking recently, she’s an engineer who established Arup International Development and the work she does in disaster zones. It was very thought provoking on how we can all use our skills in different ways.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

For a long time, I wanted to be an engineer or in the navy like my Dad. Or doing something connected to geography – and I’m actually doing that. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I think I’ve ended up where I was obviously heading!

What are you most proud of outside work?

Definitely my kids. When my eldest daughter was born, she had a congenital heart condition and needed open heart surgery at six-days-old. Now she’s 15 and strong, doing brilliantly at school and we’ve let her find her own way – not always easy! I also have 13-year-old twins. I want them to develop a strong work ethic but also to find that balance in life.

And what do you do in your spare time?

Lots of outdoor stuff, doing and watching sport, and ferrying children to and from activities. Outdoor swimming, walking, some cycling and running. I score for my girl’s cricket teams which forces you to concentrate and be in the moment like nothing else I’ve ever done!!

QWhy is the work you do important and what does it mean to you personally?

I'm passionate about what I do, meeting people, developing work but also working with clients and supporting them on projects, working as a part of a team. Having three daughters has also focussed me on how we can engage and develop others to join our industry, starting with support and careers advice at all levels within education. It’s important for us to share how we got to where we are and inspire others.

QWhat are some career highlights or exciting projects that you've worked on?

Working offshore as a newly qualified geophysicist was a real high. I loved being part of the team but also the unpredictability of it all and being at the sharp end.

About 15 years ago, as a project manager, I worked with a very small oil company, managing their survey work. They had a huge find in the North Sea, the first one for more than 15 years at the time and I was with them as they grew and developed, managing all their site investigation through the development of  what was to become the Buzzard Field.

I was also involved in an R&D project with TotalEnergies for six years, where we were using drones to drop sensors in remote areas. I was lucky enough to spend time on a seismic crew in the jungle in Papua New Guinea in 2017 which was fascinating. Just before the first lockdown, I was in the desert in Abu Dhabi for the next phase of testing on the project. It was amazing to be part of a huge R&D project and to be part of the team shaping it but also to be involved in the field.

Another big highlight has been building our team. We're very adaptable with a diverse skillset, with brilliant technical specialists and project managers working cross sector and cross discipline, worldwide. Nicky [Simpson]’s marine consenting and environmental team and Julie Sneath’s operations teams are both some of the best in the business and I’m really proud of our whole Sites team.

QWhat advice would you give to your younger self?

Stop trying so hard sometimes! Having always worked in a male dominated environment, I always believed I had to be better, that I needed to work harder.

Above all, believe in yourself, have confidence in yourself. Enjoy what you do, who you’re with and where you are. Do what you love and what inspires you.

Self-confidence – and confident communication – has been a theme in several of our International Women’s Day interviews. Even women who exude confidence and strength of personality comment on developing the courage to advise and persuade.

Early in my career, I did suffer from imposter syndrome (although it didn’t have a label then) and I definitely developed a technical confidence with experience but personal confidence in myself was, and can still be, a challenge.

QIs there anything you wish you'd known about the industry or the workplace?

I underestimated how difficult it would be to have children and keep up the same pace at work, it was really, really hard. RPS were always supportive, and part of it was me driving myself, not wanting to miss anything, or show weakness. I also underestimated the impact on my confidence coming back into the workplace. But it was also a different time – no female managers, and men just wouldn’t have thought about some of the issues [affecting women], and I wouldn’t have expected them to then. A lot has changed and I hope the biggest difference I can make with my team and to the environment we're in is for it to be a caring, collaborative, supportive environment, where we do great work.

QWhat about ‘breaking the bias’, the theme of International Women's Day this year – are there barriers for women? How do we change this?

I’ve always tried to break down any barriers that I’ve come up against, equally I may have been too busy trying to push harder that I might not have noticed. I’ve been very fortunate in my career so far that I’ve been able to shape what I’ve done within the context of the business.

I do think there can be unconscious bias in the workplace and in our industry. I’m on an external committee of about 50 people, and there are only four women and it is a running theme, particularly in site investigation. We have to try harder to change this. We also need to recognise the challenges for women particularly – such as caring responsibilities of young and old, impact of menopause – and understand these. We have so much experience to bring yet can be hit hardest with these challenges and we need the support to be there so we don’t lose this vital part of the work force.

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Karen Dalton

Technical Director Energy Transition

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