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First Woman Interview with Professor Jean Venables

Dr Jean VenablesIf you tell Professor Jean Venables CBE FREng that she cannot do something, prepare to be told that she, most certainly can  – and will.
The First Woman president of The Institution of Civil Engineers was told many times in her journey to her first that she wasn’t allowed, that she couldn’t – or that she probably shouldn’t – and she defied the naysayers to become one the most respected pioneers in her field.
She talks to First Women about what it was that kept her pushing forward and the lessons she has learnt about collaboration, management and challenging the status quo.

My father decided that I would leave school at 15

That was the way it was. Fortunately for me, my school overruled that and so I stayed on for A-levels. I attended a girls’ grammar school and wished to do A-Level Physics, but there was no provision for it – no lab or teacher – so I had to go up to the local boys school to study. This gave me access to certain career advice and library facilities that were probably quite crucial. No-one had ever been to university in my family (less than 10% of children across the country even went to University at that time.) I didn’t even know when I entered 6th form that university was an option. So I somewhat broke the mould.

It was assumed I would do a maths degree…

Which was reasonable given my trajectory up to that point, but then I asked, ‘well what will I do with a maths degree?’ I was told, ‘well, you can teach, dear.’ And that was it! And yes, later in life I thoroughly enjoyed teaching, but at 17 I was thinking there had to be more to life than school. And so I went off and did some research and came back with three alternatives for my possible Maths degree: computing, pharmaceutical studies and civil engineering. I was told very definitively that there was no future in computing, that pharmaceutical studies meant a job in the local chemist and that ‘girls don’t do civil engineering.’ So I said, ‘well I’m going to.’ As a result, the school somewhat washed their hands of me because they hadn’t spent time, as they saw it, ‘giving me a good education for me to throw it away and become an engineer’ – which were the actual words they used. So I got no help filling in my university application form, or anything. I think they couldn’t get past the idea that an engineer was a car mechanic in the local garage . I didn’t know enough to contradict them, but having set out my stall I was going to stay with it. Needless to say, they were very displeased with me.

I remember my Leeds University interview very well

The faculty were just beginning to think that maybe they should have some girls in the civil engineering group and so I was basically told that whatever my results were I would get a place, basically because they wanted to increase the number of women doing civil engineering. I said, ‘well in that case I’m not coming.’ If my place wasn’t based on fairness and merit, I didn’t want it. I always had an intense need to fight for fairness. Nottingham University basically said the same thing and it was only Imperial College, London that said, ‘it’s going to be tough. We will treat you the same as all the others. We don’t have much experience of girls but you will just have to muck in.’ So that was how I ended up taking my degree there.

I didn’t really have any inspiration growing up

It’s not the first time I have been asked about who inspired me, and I have racked my brains…I just always had an inner drive to do my best. I would go at everything hell for leather to ensure I did as well as I could. I never expected to come top of the class. My mother encouraged me to do my homework but no-one could help me with my maths and I taught myself one of my A-levels. The biggest source of encouragement really was from my boyfriend’s (now husband’s) mother. She said to me, ‘of course you can have a career and get married and have children. Just put your mind to it!’ She was splendid. It was the first time I head heard from someone else that my aspirations were not unreasonable.

Don’t let anyone talk you out of anything

I was always being told, ‘well you can’t do that’. I was always the smallest and often the youngest – I was either not tall enough, or old enough, or it was because I was a girl. And I didn’t have the language at the time but now I would say, ‘I bloody well will!’ At the time I probably just said, ‘well, I am going to anyway’ and on construction sites later in my career, that quality has stood me in good stead! My first job was in public health engineering and I visited the London sewers with the sewer gang. I was fit, agile and healthy and at one point the gang stopped and they looked at me and I was like, ‘what’s up?’ And they replied, ‘the firemen have usually given up by now’ [laughs] I said, ‘I have news for you, I don’t do giving up.’ Which about sums me up really.

Me and my fellow students mentored each other

I had done a lot of mathematics but not a lot of tech drawing, and a lot of the boys at Imperial were better at the tech drawing but not so good at maths. At Imperial you were lectured at and then left to fend for yourself, so we worked as a group, kind of mentoring each other in the drawing office every evening: me teaching them maths and them teaching me tech drawing. And of course there were people who helped me once I was qualified. There were those who wanted to see a woman get on in Civil Engineering – as well as people who definitely did not. And I just had to keep eyes open and watch out for that. If someone got in my way – I thought, well I may not necessarily be able to convert you to women in this industry, but I don’t want you blocking me either so I will walk round you and leave you there.

I tried to make it amusing when I was challenged. If someone said, ‘aren’t you meant to be out there pushing a pram, lady?’ Or ‘what are you doing here on site, that’s no place for you,’ I’d say’ ‘if I thought you were serious I would bother to argue.’ Fortunately, many took that as a route out and let me be…I didn’t ever try and force them to change their views but I let them have theirs and I expressed mine. That’s been there my whole career dynamic: ‘I don’t hurt you, you don’t hurt me.’ Especially if you get promoted over someone; they might not be happy but you still have to get them to come along with the way things have gone.

If conflict arises, give people an ‘out’ – and be open to negotiate

Look for the mutually beneficial solution – what is negotiable for you and beneficial to them? But also be clear on where you will not negotiate; beyond that you do not go.
Be clear about those boundaries. It also helps you to build your reputation. When I chair a meeting, people know that if they have 15 minutes I will absolutely tell them when their 15 minutes is up. They know that I will even pull the microphone plug if I have to. Therefore, I never have to do it. Never threaten anything you cannot or won’t carry through. But if you threaten something you can do (and even do it once or twice) you don’t have to do it very often!

Yes, you have to work harder than your male counterparts to be accepted

If you make a mistake it is ‘because you’re a bloody woman.’ Whereas if a bloke makes a mistake, ‘well he had too much bad beer the night before’ or whatever. I think that sort of attitude is disappearing but it was very evident when I was a junior engineer. I also think that people should not be quite so prickly about this. Circumstances in the workplace cannot always be perfect and sometimes you have to cut some people some slack; let them have a little foot stamp or a grumble. Sometimes it is worth simply turning a deaf ear. I have often found this useful on site!

There are pieces of advice I have always gone back to

Admit when you don’t know something. Say that you will look it up and work it out but always admit if you don’t know. When I was lecturing, I tried to install this approach in the students. It can be very expensive to guess. It is much easier to say, ‘I don’t know, let me get back to you. When do you need the answer by?’ It is hard for some people to admit they don’t know, but it is important to do it.


Always be fair

I have always regarded myself as a civil engineer – not a woman engineer. My profession is civil engineering and I happen to be a woman. I think that’s a very important distinction. The sex discrimination act didn’t get passed until 1975 and there were a lot of things that legally, male colleagues could forbid me from doing and I did not have a legal leg to stand on. Back in the ’60s there were a lot of buildings I was forbidden to go into because I was a woman: a lot of the London clubs, for example. That was a fact of life. Back in 1974 I was one of only 12 women to become a chartered engineer since 1812. All I could do is say, ‘well I am going to’ and usually I did. I didn’t get down a coal mine … but that’s about it. But all other things if they said, ‘well that’s not suitable for women, I would say, ‘well I am a civil engineer and I’m going to do it.’
I fought very hard to stop the male-only activity and so it distresses me to see the women’s groups being formed now because I always say – if you have a women’s lunch, why can’t men have a men’s lunch? Woman aren’t the only minority in engineering. There is a lot of cultural, racial and religious minorities too and it is only fair that we go for fairness and equality for all. No special favours for anybody. There tends to be, in some people’s eyes, a need for special dispensations for women. But it is much easier to argue fair treatment for everybody – whether you are a racial minority, a gender minority or whatever.

One of the skills of the chairperson is to ensure that everybody makes a contribution

And that includes the quiet people, and the more restrained cultures that will not interrupt an elder – not just women. A good chairperson says, ‘yes, thank you, you have said enough, now who wants to argue with that?’ Sometimes it means interrupting. If some people do not get a say, it is a fault of the person running the meeting as they are not looking round and seeing who else wants to contribute. As a chairperson – you have to actively watch and manage. That is your responsibility and your job.

Try and be inclusive

We have a tendency to greet our friends and talk to them in work situations and social situations and that is nice but we have a duty as senior members of an institution to go round the room and bring people in. And I think that is very important. When I was a graduate member of the Civils, a lot of presidents at the time were very supportive and accessible to me. That has encouraged me to do the same. I try very hard to be available. When I go to receptions and dinners I will always look around for the young couple that is hanging back because they didn’t know anyone and make a point of walking over and saying hello and introducing them to someone.

If you make a mistake – fix it – but take baby steps

If something that has happened, ok you learn the lessons but ask yourself, what would you do next time? And what will you do now to fix it? As mentor, try and find things that the mentee can do now that are within it their means and that are not too big a step. If a means of reparation is achievable, people feel bolstered by that and start feeling more positive about themselves again. That means they can then take bigger and bigger steps towards repair.

Professions must reflect the society they serve

And this comes back to diversity and equality. Everyone has different qualities and if everyone has an opportunity to make their contribution then the diverse view will end up with a system that suits all needs and age groups. Diversity of people brings diversity of thought and solutions.

Do I feel like a Pioneer?

The first time I was confronted with this was when I was president of the Civils, visiting Bangladesh. I spoke to a group of girls at a college and one of them said, ‘you are the first woman engineer I have ever seen. It has inspired me to continue my dream.’ She was fighting all sorts of prejudices and I thought, well if I have done that, that means something.
I never had aspirations to be president of the ICE. But I have always believed that there’s no point mumbling into your cornflakes every morning either. If you’ve got something to say, say it where somebody else can hear it. Try and make a difference. Try and get your voice heard so that if others agree with you – change happens. Yes, I have made a lot of change happen over the years and I hope I have had a big influence. But I didn’t set out to do that! [laughs]

Interview by Deborah Willimott

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