Thursday, 11 December 2008

Just one little word....

Flicking through New Scientist the other day, my eye was caught by a striking full-page advertisement featuring a black tulip. This was not the sought after flower that led to the tulip madness in the 1630s - an economic bubble that was as disastrous as the current house price or contemporary art bubbles of today. This tulip was black because of its coating of engine oil, and the headline was a call to ‘Join the people who will develop a non-polluting fuel.’

The ad was placed by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (previously known as the Institution of Electrical Engineers) in its campaign to attract more members who want to make significant positive differences to the world.

This is a cheery and positive message as this year’s rather subdued festive season gets under way. Then I heard a faint rattle of the ghost of Christmas Past, as I recalled an incident at a corporate drinks party last December. Upstairs, downstairs and on the stairs - people everywhere chatting animatedly, exchanging business cards, backslapping and greeting. Yes, give or take the odd no-show, the Christmas do was going well. Cranberry juice cocktails were proving as popular as the wine, boding well for a lower level of departing boisterousness than previous years.

The Chairman’s wife, successful in her own right, charming and stylish, was engaged in animated conversation when a departing guest interrupted the chat to bid her farewell. With a refreshing disregard for current political correctness, he complimented her warmly on her striking, jewel coloured silk jacket. But then he ruined the entire uplifting and charming effect with, "But I am only an engineer, so what do I know?"

Only an engineer? Only an engineer? What is going on in universities, colleges and the industry, that instils in engineers a sense of self-deprecation that makes Uriah Heep look positively cocky? For years, civil engineers in particular have bemoaned their lack of profile, the perennial complaint that they are seen by most people as a washing machine repairer or car mechanic. Mind you, both of these occupations can be greatly appreciated, particularly when the kitchen floor is awash or the engine doesn’t start as you set off to the airport.

Perhaps that is the key. How often do people need a civil engineer? Civil engineering expertise is not a distress purchase like other professional services such as law, accountancy or medicine - when faced with a court summons, tax return or broken leg (tick appropriate box).

Mind you, there have been occasions when I have been very happy to see a civil engineer and pay the bill too. Like the time when I had just bought a house in 24 hours – yes, it is possible – and then spotted two cracks running 30ft (10 metres in new money) from gable to ground on the flank wall of the newly acquired property. An hour later and the civil engineer was there, squinting into the sun and then pronouncing that there was no major problem. These were simply thermal cracks from coal fires over the past 150 years and could be sorted out with stitching and pointing.

That word 'only' applied to the problem, not the person delivering a professional solution to it.

Postcript: for those of you who are looking for a last minute Christmas present for a plant lover, I recommend Anna Pavord's beautiful book The Tulip.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Valiant women: notes from an orange grove

I am writing this entry in Mallorca, our first visit since our honeymoon 40 years ago. We are staying in a garden house in orange and lemon groves in Soller, a little mediaeval town in the Tremuntana Mountains in the northwest of the island. The diary of local events reveals that every year in May the town has a festival to celebrate Ses Valentes Dones (the Valiant Women). Back in 1561, two sisters refused to run and hide when pirates invaded the island, instead attacking and killing several of the men who broke into their home and contributing significantly to Soller’s victory over the marauders.

This story of the strength and determination that women find at times of war reminded me of the speech I had given just a few days before, at a Women in Property lunch at Raymond Blanc’s beautiful restaurant La Maison aux Quat’ Saisons near Oxford. (make link to site and report). In Visibility, Entrepreneurship and Success, I recounted the little known but extraordinary tale of the women who built London’s Waterloo Bridge during the Second World War. Construction historian Dr Chris Wall discovered that, although riverboat pilots refer to ‘The Ladies Bridge’ on leisure trips on the Thames, the story had been written out of the official archives.

Her investigations resulted in a fascinating documentary film which revealed that despite 70% of the workforce being women, their contribution was not acknowledged. When Waterloo Bridge was opened in 1945, the dignitary doing the honours was Lord Mandelson’s grandfather Herbert Morrison, then Deputy Prime Minister. His words were "The men who built Waterloo are fortunate men. They know that, although their names may be forgotten, their work will be a pride and use to London for many generations to come."

So why did so few people know then, let alone remember now? The son of one of the men who worked on the project with main contractor Peter Lind recalled his father’s comment that the women didn’t look like women, because they wore all-in-one overalls, with their hair tied up in scarves or hats. Tight security around the site also kept onlookers at a considerable distance. So the women were simply invisible.

The film The Ladies' Bridge includes interviews with some of the women welders and builders recalling their experiences - and their deep frustration at having to give up their work when the men returned from war to reclaim their jobs. "But it showed me what I could do," said one doughty nonagenarian, "My husband found that I was an independent woman when he got back from the front."

As Harriet Rubin, in her book Princessa: Machiavelli for Women, says "When the rules are broken, or in shambles, women succeed. War favours the dangerous woman."

So if a small town like Soller in Mallorca has acknowledged its two Valiant Women every year for nearly five centuries, why don’t we organise a celebration every year to acknowledge the invisible and valiant women in construction? After all, there were 25,000 of them in the building trades in 1941, representing 3% compared with a mere 1% today, so they could do with some recognition. Perhaps a walk of constructive women, past and present, from every discipline, from both side of the River Thames, and meeting in the middle of Waterloo Bridge for balloons, bubbly and fireworks?

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Critical mass, leaky pipeline or your own canoe?

Some fascinating contrasts are revealed in the latest report about women in the boardroom. Ten years on from the first Cranfield Female FTSE Report, the number of directorships held by women on FTSE 100 corporate boards has risen by only five percentage points, from 7% in 1999 to 12% this year.

But there is good news too, and some intriguing findings for women working in the non-traditional workplace. Whilst 22 companies in the index have no women at all on their boards, some of the others who do, want more of them. Report co-author Ruth Sealey comments, “In comparison to the 1999 figures, the most significant increase is in the number of companies with multiple women on their boards – 39 of the FTSE 100.”

She continues, “It is only once a critical mass of women in the boardroom is attained that real culture change can occur.”

That’s fine and dandy, but the critical mass argument doesn’t seem to be working down the pipeline. Despite women achieving 50% (or more) representation in medicine, law and accountancy, the cry goes up regularly that there are far too few at the top of their profession.

What’s more, according to the Cranfield report, some companies working in industries with relatively few women in the workforce have a higher number of women on their boards than those with lots. Surprisingly, it is the oil, gas, mining and electricity industries that have more women in their top executive posts than sectors like retail. So where are we now on the critical mass versus leaky pipeline argument?

It is often put forward that the reason there are so few women at the top is because they don’t want to rise into the heady and ruthless stratosphere of the corporate world and the ranks of the great and good. They are lost through that leaky pipeline, choosing to re-train or change career direction, often setting up their own business.

But I can throw another surprise into the mix. Preparing a speech for the launch of a new satellite branch of the dynamic network Women in Property, I found an interesting common denominator amongst the women breaking down the bastions at the top of very traditional, professional institutions. They have all chosen to paddle their own canoes, running successful businesses, bringing up families and yet keeping on the radar screen for advancement.

They are: President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (Dr Jean Venables OBE), past President of the Institution of Mechnical Engineers (Pam Liversidge OBE), President of the Royal Town Planning (Janet O’Neill) and President-Elect of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Ruth Reed).

Views are invited on how women reach the top – and what companies should do about it.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Making history on both sides of The Pond

On Tuesday 4 November 2008, whilst Americans across the USA were voting for their first black President, another historic event was taking place in the UK. Dr Jean Venables OBE was inaugurated as the first woman president of the Institution of Civil Engineers in its 190-year-old history.

It was a privilege and a pleasure to be one of the capacity audience in the imposing ICE headquarters building in Westminster to hear Jean deliver her presidential address. She pledged action on climate change, putting engineers right at the heart of infrastructure policy decision making, advising government every step of the way.

"We need to take the risk of taking decisions –now," she said, with calm authority. "We have got to engender the same sense of urgency and importance about climate change that the recent banking crisis has had."

A leading engineer in the field of flood risk management – for which she was awarded the OBE in 2004 - Jean has combined her engineering career with running a successful consultancy with her husband Professor Roger Venables and bringing up two sons. She has an impressive portfolio of appointments and awards, including Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering, visiting lectureships at Imperial College and Southampton University, and Chairmanship of the Thames Estuary partnership.

Told at school that ‘girls don’t do engineering’, Jean discovered that this was indeed the case when she arrived at Imperial College to be one of only two women studying civil engineering that year. As she commented in her address, "Considering I was only the 16th woman to become a Chartered Member of the ICE and the 12th to become a Fellow, it’s not surprising there’s never been a women president."

"ICE currently has only 8% female membership across all grades, so clearly there is much to be done to get more women into civil engineering. However, the landscape is already changing with 20% of the student and graduate member grades being women."

An important step in this direction was demonstrated when Jean introduced her President’s Apprentices – five young graduate members of ICE chosen to work closely with her throughout the year. They will gain an invaluable insight into the role of a senior engineer and the workings of the institution. Three of the five are young women.

A salutary tale

Sitting two along in the Great Hall, at the inauguration of Jean Venables OBE as president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, was another rare female of the species FICE (Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Civil Engineers). She told my husband the following tale, after being impressed by his feminist credentials (he was a fellow student of Jean Venables in the sixties and fought alongside her to stop the habit of the City and Guilds Association of allowing only one woman - the President’s wife - to attend their official events).

When she became a Chartered Civil Engineer, said our new friend, she was taken aback that the letter confirming her achievement was addressed to ‘Mr’. Her request that this be changed to ‘Miss’ was refused by the female ICE staff member, who pointed out that as only two of the 1500 newly chartered individuals were female it was not worth changing the usual salutation.

It was only when the newly fledged CEng pointed out that her local authority employer was refusing to grant the increased salary that Chartership brings, on the grounds that the letter clearly couldn’t be referring to her, that the august body produced a correctly addressed letter.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Fish and the Widow

This was the weekend that the clocks went back –and we made the most of the extra hour by getting round to hanging the long awaited jizai-kagi above the two metre wide open fireplace in our cottage in Gloucestershire.

A jizai-kagi is an adjustable hook to hold cooking pots above the central fireplace in a traditional Japanese house. It is often in the form of a carved fish, in the hope that a symbol synonymous with water will give protection against fire destroying the wood and paper houses.

We first saw a jizai-kagi some 15 years ago, in a tiny shop in a village on the Nakasendo Way, a 500 km cobbled highway built in the 8th Century to link Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo). We didn’t know then what it was for, but our decision not to buy the battered but lovely wooden carp –and to find some way of carrying it home safely – has been a source of regret ever since.

But we decided this year to resolve the regret, and after considerable sleuth work, we took delivery of a beautifully carved, very heavy, one metre long jizai-kagi in the shape of a carp, complete with pot hook, from a Japanese antique dealer based in Canada.

Off we went to the local hardware store to buy the fixings to hold our piscatorial insurance policy over the fireplace. A pair of hot dip galvanised staples, on back plates, were just the job and they were duly screwed into the elm beams of the ceiling.

As I gathered up the packet that had contained the staples, I noticed the manufacturer’s name was Eliza Tinsley. Intrigued, I searched on Google to discover that when Eliza’s husband died in 1851, leaving her with five children under the age of 11, she took over his business, a company that made nails, chain, rope and hardware for agricultural, building and engineering use. Known locally as 'the widow', she built a reputation as a fair and knowledgeable businesswoman and the business thrived, becoming the largest of its kind in the West Midlands.

In fact, according to the National Census of 1871, around 4,000 people were employed by Eliza Tinsley, many of them outworkers living in the chainmakers cottages prominent throughout the region. They would visit the site once a week to collect materials and then would return the following week with finished product forged in their own outhouses.

It is very likely that most of these 4,000 people employed by Eliza Tinsley were girls and women, who dominated the Black Country nail making trade in the West Midlands at that time. According to Arthur Willets, author of The Black Country Nail Trade, it was common practice "for colliers and ironworkers to marry a nailing wench who was also expected to bring up the children while they followed more manly pursuits."

Those men who did make nails spent much of their time determined to keep their wages higher than those of the women, who at that time did not have the vote, let alone the benefit of the Equal Pay Act.

Today Eliza Tinsley is a PLC owned by the Atlantic Group, making buckets and hydraulics for JCB and Caterpillar diggers as well as a huge range of chains, ropes and hardware. I would like to think that Eliza Tinsley’s reputation as a ‘fair and respected businesswoman’ meant that she was an enlightened employer. Perhaps establishing the ethos that led to the company deciding, 150 years after she became owner, to reduce dividends to shareholders to make good the shortfall in the company’s pension scheme for its workers.

As Andrew Hall, CEO of the group at the time said in a Moneybox interview in 2001 on BBC Radio 4, "My predecessors made pension promises to a whole group of people which we as a current management have a responsibility to honour."
Back to the matter in hand, we decided a toast was in order to celebrate the arrival of our beautiful fish guardian, hanging securely above the hearth thanks to an entrepreneurial woman ironmonger from the Black Country known as the widow. A bottle of Veuve Cliqot seemed appropriate.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Ladies who power lunch

To mark the publication of its 'World's 100 Most Powerful Women ' list for 2008, Fortune magazine hosted a lunch for 50 women from the worlds of business, finance and politics in the City of London last week. Inexplicably invited to the party, I found myself seated next to the host for the event, the dynamic, articulate and funny Ann Moore, Chairman and CEO of the world's largest magazine company, Time Inc.

It quickly became evident that despite a belief that there is still much to be done to get more women at the top, Fortune magazine had managed to gather together an impressive group in one room. Conversation took off fast and furious around our table, reflecting the many areas in which women have become influential. The Right Hon Patricia Hewitt MP, (one time Minister for Trade and industry and now non executive director of BT) shared recollections with Dame Judith Mayhew-Jonas (first woman to run the City of London, chair of the Royal Opera House and now tasked with the transformation of London's West End) of their trade mission to India.

Other table companions included Jodi Birkett, who at 32 is the youngest ever corporate finance partner at Deloitte - and the oldest member of her veteran's rugby team (she plays hooker) - and Susan Payne, who set up her own asset management company Emergent in 1996 and heads the London chapter of 85 Broads, the world’s biggest professional women’s network. Dona Roche-Tarry, holder of top level posts at BT before becoming Head of HR at Barclays Commercial is now partner of international executive search firm CT Partners specialising in finding the right person for roles on the board.

Anya Hindmarch, the 'Handbag Queen' who combines running her £20m international business with bringing up five children was the eighth guest at our table. Ann Moore delightedly produced her Hindmarch purse and Patricia Hewitt and Judith Mayhew-Jonas waxed lyrical about the Hindmarch bag given to first class travellers on British Airways. "Much better than the terrible plastic thing with a rubber band around it from Qantas, said Australian born Hewitt, clearly voting for her adoptive country when it comes to handbags. Which highlighted another interesting factor - our table boasted an Australian, a New Zealander, a Canadian, two Americans and three Brits.

But the dominant topic for the lunch was the tumultous events in the world economy. One of the most worrying factors was not only the ability but the physical wellbeing of the people dealing with the global financial meltdown, said Ann Moore. "They are all suffering from severe sleep deprivation, " she said, "which must impact on their ability to make rational decisions."

In conversation over coffee with co-host Stephanie Mehta, Global Editor of Fortune, Ann Moore told guests that to survive what is going to be a severe downturn, you must take care of your health and manage stress levels, despite the pressure, she advised. And when it comes to more women succeeding in business, employers need to recognise that people have lives outside work and women should help each other with mentoring and support.

But this is the comment that really convinced me, a one-time journalist who set up her own marketing consultancy specialising in engineering and construction, that Ann Moore was definitely my new best friend.

"We really don’t need any more bankers," she said, "What the world needs now are more engineers, journalists, marketers and entrepreneurs."

Friday, 10 October 2008

Women and Tomorrow's world

There is nothing like being asked to chair a conference on the role of women in the government’s ‘Vision for Science and Society’ to focus the mind on this challenging topic. So before setting off for the Institute of Directors last week, I marshalled some thoughts in the hope of steering the day from lively debate to practical proposals.

The conference was organised by the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET, as one of a series to gather experience and recommendations on how to ensure that gender equality is included in government policy on science and society. (

The official report on the fascinating day will be posted shortly, but in the meantime, here are some personal musings on the three topics highlighted in the ‘Vision for Science and Society’ consultation paper produced by DIUS, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

A society excited by and valuing science
In 2008, my wonder that aircraft can fly, that clean water comes out of the tap and that I can speak to people around the world through a small piece of metal is probably regarded by many as childish naivety rather than awe at technological achievement. But let’s face it, there is a myriad of extraordinary ways in which our lives are enriched by science, but which too often generate unrealistic expectation rather than appreciation.

A society that feels confident in the use of science.
The complexity of scientific endeavour makes effective communication a challenge. Add in questions of ethics and practice and it is perhaps not surprising that public confidence can be tested. Now there is an additional challenge, caused by the growing division between religious and scientific belief. US vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is the latest high profile proponent for teaching creationism side by side with Darwinian science in schools.
Extraordinary to think that it is nearly 400 years since Galileo was forced by the Inquisition to recant his theory that the Earth moves around the Sun, causing him great personal distress in balancing his religious commitment and scientific belief. But then it is only 16 years since the Vatican acknowledged that he was right. If you want to know more, read Dava Sobell’s book Galileo’s daughter.

A society that supports a representative, well-qualified scientific workforce.
It is paradoxical that despite the liberating influence of science, engineering and technology on women’s daily lives, that so few choose to study or work in the disciplines that have created that freedom. The need to improve advice and opportunities offered to girls and young women, together with realistic working conditions and effective career development remains paramount.
At a smart gathering of legal eagles last week it was rather depressing to be told by an articulate young woman that she couldn’t see anything interesting to do with her biology degree so she had opted to become a litigation lawyer.
On the plus side, just a few days earlier at an even more glittery evening at Claridges, it was a delight to sit at table with one of the regional winners of the Women in Property awards for young women studying built environment subjects.
Just starting on the third year of her architecture degree, Katherine Timmins told me what she did when faced with no practical careers advice or help from her school in identifying how to take up her chosen career path., "I just went on the web and sorted it out for myself," she said. An excellent role model in the making.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Women behaving nicely

The autumn season gets off to an excellent start, with the all-woman panel session on Good Business on 4 September at the International Construction Superconference in London.

Well, it was an all woman panel until the evening before, when the chap from the concurrent session asked if he could join our hen party, rather than run his solo presentation in the next suite at the same time.

Taking the request as a compliment and happy to demonstrate inclusiveness, (not to mention welcoming a larger audience) I agree. So David Lane of Hill International joins the line-up, with Janet Kidner of Lend Lease Retail and Communities, Suzannah Nichol of the National Specialist Contractors Council and, thanks to sponsorship by the Chartered Institute of Building, Bridgette Gasa from COEGA development zone in South Africa.

Our panel theme of Good Business addressed the challenging and sometimes rather nebulous issues of what might be described as good behaviour in construction - sustainability, diversity, cultural awareness, governance, fair trading, human capital, corporate social responsibility…… Rather than seeing such issues simply as a moral ‘nice to have’ or as an irksome burden of compliance, the speakers set out to demonstrate that good behaviour can help to do Good Business.

Janet Kidner started the session with a calmly professional presentation on Lend Lease Retail and Communities UK’s commitment to practical sustainability. As she put it, sustainability is good for their business, enhancing competitive advantage and helping to win projects, reducing running costs and attracting good people.

Suzannah Nichol, Chief Executive of the National Specialist Contractors Council, followed with a no holds barred and highly entertaining summary of why she has launched a campaign for fair payment in the supply chain. As she put it, “Major contractors here may find some of my comments uncomfortable, but the fact is, not paying on time the people who actually do the work is totally unacceptable.”

In contrast, softly spoken Bridgette Gasa took to the lectern to outline how she is tackling job creation and business support for Small, Micro and Medium Enterprises as part of major infrastructure regeneration in South Africa. She described how the long term objectives of capacity building, through individual training, business support and setting a quota of work opportunities for minority owned firms, is beginning to build human capital in a major industrial development zone.

Finally David Lane described how good behaviour is essential when setting out to tap into the vast opportunities for doing business in China. Tips on customs and etiquette included: understanding the importance of seniority, waiting to be guided to a specific seat at dinner, sniffing rather than blowing your nose into a handkerchief and remaining articulate even after significant consumption of alcohol.

Judging by the audience reaction, once again the all woman Superconference panel (ok, with one man this year) delivered a refreshing approach to familiar topics, in a tightly paced way by articulate, professional and entertaining women.

Yet, the only women speakers at the conference were the four of us on that panel! Come on everyone, let's try to redress the balance. Next time you see a pale, male and stale construction conference line-up, why not take a leaf out of David Lane’s book and simply phone up to invite yourself (or a woman you know) on to the platform. Asking firmly yet very politely, of course.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Bright spark on a damp day

Now that the summer holidays are here, the builders are at work in the small primary school in the village. They are knocking down walls to ‘create an appropriate learning environment’ for the 70 children attending the little Cotswold stone school built in 1878 by the Baptist Church.

In the second week of works, the three white vans parked on the verge opposite the school are joined by a fourth, the electrical contractor. Passing by on my return from the Village Shop and Post Office (thankfully spared closure) I notice that the slim figure with a mane of curly auburn hair, busy selecting mounting boxes and switches boxes in the back of the van, is a young woman.

Long mystified by why there are so few women electricians, compared with the other building trades, I stopped to chat. She is apprenticed to a local firm, training at the local college and loves the work. She knows three others in the area, all equally happy. Does she think that it is the maths that might put girls and women off?

"No," she says, "understanding the basics is quite simple." She’s really looking forward to qualifying in a year’s time - there's much more interesting stuff to do than just installing sockets.

Just the sort of person to shed some new light on the world of work, by talking to the children about what she did in the summer holidays.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

The ultimate boat shoe

Last week Peter the electrician, who did the wiring for our kitchen extension last year, came back to install lights and power in the garden. As luck would have it, the heavens opened just after he arrived, reminding us that his previous visit was the day of the Great Flood of 2007. As London descended into chaos that day last July, he temporarily abandoned our work in order to go to the rescue of another customer in Wandsworth whose house was a metre deep in water.

Peter began to chuckle as he recalled the owner’s stoicism in the face of disaster. As she moved precious items out of harm’s way, she discovered a new benefit of a smart wardrobe. "The really great thing about Jimmy Choo shoes," she mused, "is that the boxes float!"

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Who says Americans don’t do irony?

The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC is housed in what was once an all-male domain - a Masonic Lodge. Who says Americans don’t do irony?

A visit was essential. Stepping from the blistering heat of the street into the cool marble atrium of the imposing wedge-shaped building was just the first stage of a refreshing visit. A magnificent sweeping staircase, ballustraded galleries, intricate plasterwork and glittering chandeliers combined with cool and spacious areas to showcase a variety of works of wonderful quality from the 16th Century through to the present, from paintings to sculpture, jewellery to photography, textiles to metalwork.

The NMWA was the culmination of an interest in women artists triggered by a still life painting by the early 17th Century Flemish painter Clara Peeters, bought by Wilhelmina and Wallace Holladay during a trip to Europe in the 1960s. They discovered that very few art dealers, collectors or scholars were familiar with, or interested in, works by women. The Holladays embarked on an interest that became an obsession and by 1983 the collection of works and books had outgrown their Washington home. Wilhelmina set about raising the funds to buy a property to house the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to displaying works by women artists of all periods and nationalities.

Wilhelmina Holladay was determined and remarkably successful, raising sufficient money in two years to buy the 78,810-square-foot Masonic Lodge, an historic (albeit derelict) Washington landmark together with the next door theatre. The extensive and challenging renovation programme was masterminded by Dr Anne-Imelda Radice, a distinguished art historian and museum curator , and the resulting building won numerous architectural awards.

Inevitably there was carping about the concept of a museum solely for women artists. One reviewer wrote after the opening show, that feminists had anxieties about an institution many regarded as elitist and disempowering. "For now, artists are caught in a double bind. Damned if they do enter the collection, and damned if they don't."

But the museum has proved to be a success. Since NWMA opened in 1987, the permanent collection has grown to more than 2,600 works by 700 artists, a wide range of educational programmes have been established. 140 special exhibitions taken place and nearly 200,000 people have become members.

And just to remind us of the need to recognise the achievements of women in the arts, my eye was caught by one particular work by Lee Krasner. Wife of the unfaithful, alcoholic artist Jackson Pollock, who was killed in a car crash ten years after they married, it took several more years before she achieved recognition as a successful artist in her own right.

Hanging above the picture are the words of her teacher Hans Hofmann, leader of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the USA.
"This is so good you would not know it was painted by a woman."

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Amazons or eye candy?

As I sat in the air conditioned comfort of a condo in hot, steamy Washington DC, reading in the New York Times about the decision of the US Army to break tradition in order to allow a woman to reach the top (see Thinking out of a five sided box), I was reminded that Spain has also recognised women as top warriors.

The line-up of the Spanish Cabinet announced by Zapatero not only showed women out-numbering the men (nine female ministers out of 17) but also the appointment of heavily pregnant Carme Chacon as Minister of Defence. She immediately pledged to boost the number of women in Spain's armed forces, which first allowed female members in 1988.

Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, consolidates her position as Deputy Prime Minister with increased responsibilities and Magdalena Alvarez continues at Public Works with the challenge of solving Catalonia's water crisis.

In France too, Prime Minister Sarkozy has feminised his ministerial line-up, with the appointment of 11 women in the 33-member administration, including seven out of 16 Cabinet ministers and three of the top five most senior positions. Christine Lagarde, head of US law firm Baker Mackenzie becomes the first woman to become Finance Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie is Interior Minister and Justice Minister is the outspoken Muslim, Rachida Dati.

The reaction to the Zapatero appointments has been revealing. Italy’s Sylvio Berlusconi announced that Spain’s cabinet was ‘too pink’ and that there would difficulties in leading them. A telling comment from someone who is famous for his enjoyment of women’s company – and who has four women in his cabinet including a former topless model. Presumably this sort of occupation make women more accommodating when it comes to making important decisions than, say, an economist or four-star general.

As for the UK, the focus was sartorial rather than political, with much admiration for the elegance and grooming of the Spanish and French cabinet. One after another, national newspaper commentators drew unflattering comparisons with the dress sense of British female politicians –The women of Dowdy Street being a particularly popular headline.

What a pity the opportunity was missed to identify the skills and attributes of women making it to the top in politics, by the celebrity focus on frocks and hairstyles. Moreover, glasshouses and stones came into my mind, as I recall how often I am shocked by the singularly scruffy appearance of many women journalists (and I am speaking as someone who spent several years as one, including a stint in the fashion industry).

My view is that women and men should be properly dressed for their work. Being smart, appropriate and well groomed is a must for those are running affairs of state. It is good to see that now he is Prime Minister rather than Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown no longer insists on wearing a brown lounge suit to attend white tie dinners at the Mansion House, an unnecessarily distracting affectation.

At the other end of the working life spectrum, it is still difficult for women working in construction to obtain easily the right size clothing, particularly boots and protective wear. Presumably with General Anne Dunwoody organising equipment for the Pentagon this will not be a problem for the women soldiers in the US Army.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Thinking out of a five sided box

In an extraordinary break from US army tradition, President Bush has nominated a woman for promotion to the rank of full, four-star general. Historically the route to the top has required service in combat roles but the Pentagon has chosen to cast aside this customary limitation to allow General Ann E Dunwoody to reach the height of her career.

One of only two women with three stars in the US Army - the other is Lt Gen Kathleen Gainey, director of logistics on the Joint Staff – General Dunwoody will head Army Materiel Command, responsible for equipping, outfitting and arming soldiers throughout the army.

Defence Secretary Robert M Gates says of Dunwoody, “Her 33 years of service, highlighted by extraordinary leadership and devotion to duty, make her exceptionally qualified for this senior position.”

The nomination requires confirmation by the US Senate. Let’s hope that this body takes the same enlightened view as the US Army.

The New York Times National
Tuesday 24 June 2008.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Not now darling - Sandi's six o'clock rule

An afternoon spent in the House of Lords today convinces me that Sandi's six o'clock rule deserves wider coverage than the passing mention in my blog Puckering up, posted on 31 March.

I was there in the beautiful Attlee Room to chair the Enterprising Women Forum, organised by the Pink Shoes Club's indefatigible Helene Martin Gee in association with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Entrepreneurship. After discussing micro-finance, compliance and wealth creation, debate moved towards managing male/female relationships in the workplace. One delegate commented about using feminity in the workplace, another on how difficult it was for young men to know the appropriate way to greet female colleagues.

So I shared my socio/business rule, developed after years of being the only woman in business meetings and in the boardroom.

Quite simply, before six pm I shake hands with men and women colleagues, fellow directors and clients. This means that meetings start on a businesslike and equitable footing for all. After six pm the continental greeting of a kiss on both cheeks is welcome from those whom I know well and with whom I have a friendly and social relationship. My male colleagues know what to do, those whom I have only just met do not feel they have been excluded. We all know where we stand - and we can get on with the business of business.

Women want opportunity, not coercion

In the latest book on the biological differences between men and women that may affect their progress in the world of work, clinical psychologist Susan Pinker argues that prenatal testosterone creates a 'wired-in' difference. She believes that this explains "why women are biologically driven to nurture their young rather than climb the corporate ladder."

Her arguments are strongly challenged in a review of her book that appeared in 5 April edition of the New Scientist. In her critique of The Sexual Paradox:troubled boys, gifted girls & the real difference between the sexes*, Durham University’s Anne Campbell challenges Pinker’s argument that even men suffering from conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome succeed in the world of work whereas privileged women fail.

Campbell questions Pinker’s definition of success, because it is based on the traditional male criteria of academic achievement, high salary, early promotion and corporate power. She also challenges Pinker’s determination to find an enemy, defined as those who are “insisting on a 50-50 gender split in all fields, ” and who are willing to tamper with human nature itself to achieve it.

This is old hat, thinks Campbell. She asserts that for some 20 years the focus has been on creating opportunities for women to study male-typical subjects and to work in previously male dominated fields. She says, “Giving women the change does not mean forcing them to take it, any more than it means debarring men from these fields."

*Atlantic Books, £12.99

Friday, 20 June 2008

Because we're worth it!

Two documents worth popping into the Chairman and CEO's in-trays: Room at the top: women and success in UK business and also Women Matter: gender diversity, a corporate performance driver.

As they have the clout of being produced by McKinsey & Company, there is the strong possibility that the impact will go beyond a superficial read. The nub of the argument is that studies demonstrate a correlation between greater gender diversity and better economic performance.The first found that companies with three or more women in senior management positions performed significantly better across nine organisational criteria than companies with fewer women at the top. And companies that scored higher on these organisational criteria also performed better financially,with operating margins twice as high as those of lower-ranked businesses.

This finding was reinforced by a second study,which looked at economic performance for European companies with a market capitalisation of over €150 million and found that those companies with an influential female presence on the executive committee outperformed their peers in terms of return on equity,operating margin and stock price growth.

Key recommendations are familiar to those agitating for change:
1. Put the right support in place. Companies need to recognise the value of coaching, mentoring, networking and training in retaining and expanding the female talent pool.

2. Facilitate a better work-life balance, through flexible working hours and career flexibility.

3. Adapt people management processes. Recruitment, appraisal and career management systems should facilitate the progression of high performing women and help companies to keep
their talent pipeline healthy.

4. Create transparency by introducing and monitoring gender diversity KPIs. These will define and direct priorities for action, and enable companies to measure progress.

5. Lead from the top. The leadership of the CEO and Chairperson is vital.

None of this is rocket science, but it's good to see some rigorous quantifying of the business case.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Role models and rebellion

When Vicki Treadell, the British Deputy High Commissioner in Mumbai (and the only woman Commissioner in the Asian sub-continent) visited London last month, the indefatigable Pinky Lilani OBE, successful businesswoman and Chair of the Asian Women Awards, reacted with customary speed and enthusiasm. Within days, Pinky harnessed the resources of Caspian Publishing’s diversity division to organise a drinks reception for Vicki. “I only heard a week ago that she was going to be here,” said Pinky, “but I was determined to gather together as many women in business together as I could to meet her.”

When I joined the crowd of women from business, commerce and law gathered at the Ernst & Young's offices next to City Hall on a blustery March evening, Pinky told me why she was so determined to welcome Vicki Treadell. "I visited India with a trade delegation in January, and led a meeting looking at the increasing importance of women in the economy, "she said. "We were given such support from Vicki that I felt it was important for her to meet businesswomen on her visit to London."

Vicki’s career began when she answered a crecruitment advertisement for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Initially looking for a job to fund her gap year, she quickly realised that the FCO could give her the career she really wanted. Her diverse background caused some confusion though. Born in Malaysia, of a Singapore Chinese mother and a half-Dutch, half-French father born in Ceylon, she settled in Britain with her family at the age of eight. She told us that her head of department at the FCO, David Gore-Booth, remarked on her first day, “I am confused — how can you be a British diplomat?”

Undeterred, Vicki worked in the Economic Relations Department in London before her first overseas posting, which was a challenging one for a woman - Islamabad in the early eighties. Then followed four years in Kuala Lumpur before moving back to the FCO in London to work on policy issues for Western Europe and Latin America.

Seconded at a senior level UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), the British government’s overseas commercial arm, Vicki Treadell was determined to get a truer picture of the commerce and industry of the UK than can be seen from the rarefied environment of Whitehall. So she spent three years with the North West Development Agency. Living and working in Accrington, Lancashire, she says, taught her a great deal about what it takes to run manufacturing companies.

This down to earth approach is proving invaluable in her role in Mumbai. “About half of what I do now is about business,” she said. “I'm there to help UK plc capitalise on opportunities in India, and vice versa.” Delegates from all sectors of UK business arrive every week and she tries to help by arranging introductions and sometimes lobbying officials for legal reform. 'Where we see a political issue not helpful to UK industry, we'll push for change,' she says.

Asked why she felt that public service was the career for her, despite her keen interest and support for business, Vicki told us, “I went into public service to rebel against my parents, who retired young after successful commercial careers. ”

She went on to recount another example of rebellious youth. It seems that older Indian women have great regard for the UK, its traditions and its values but their daughters and nieces are looking to the USA as the place to be and the place that delivers. “We got sick of hearing how wonderful Britain was, reading Jane Austen and Shakespeare,” they say, “so we are rebelling against tradition to find our own heroes.”

A lesson here for those promoting UK plc. The British film industry may be doing good (and well deserved) business with crinolines, bonnets and classic drama, but we need the diversity and determination of women like Pinky and Vicki to show the reality of today's Britain and encourage young women to make bold career choices.

Caption: Pinky Lilani (left) with Vicki Treadell in London, 5 March. Photograph courtesy of the The Telegraph, Calcutta.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Phwoar, what a corker!

There I was, sitting in the Housing Forum conference this week, listening to the recurring theme of the difficulty in finding skilled people to deliver better quality homes, when scorching down the ether on to my Blackberry came the latest example of the ConstructionSkills approach to promoting careers in construction.

It was an advertisement in The Sun newspaper featuring a well endowed young woman in skimpy vest, hard hat, strategically positioned tool belt and Black & Decker at the ready.

'Are you ready to build a reputation?' ran the headline.

Was she one of the few young women responding to the £500,000 ConstructionSkills marketing and promotion campaign, I wondered. One who had found one of those elusive work placements on a building site? (See Women on the tools below)

Of course she wasn't. She was a photographer's model, tempting young people between the ages of 17 and 22 to enter for the SkillBuild competition to find the best builder in Britain. Ah, I get it, she must be the prize for the lucky winner. I jest.

The only good thing about this story is that Mike Bialyj of ConstructionSkills was not only attending the same conference, but was sitting on the Question Time panel. I asked whether such advertising was an appropriate way to recruit and attract more of the right people - including women.

Judging by the reaction of many in the audience, not to mention Mike Bialyj's fellow panellists, the ConstructionSkills ad was a big mistake. Initially defending it on the basis that it was good to include a woman to promote construction, Mike conceded that he had not seen the ad before it was printed and that on reflection, it was inappropriate. He apologised.

Come on ConstructionSkills, there is little point in spending money recruiting more young people, when colleges are full and employers unwilling to give work placements. There is even less point spending money on inappropriate advertising to young women, when evidence shows that the average age of women interested in construction training is around 30.

Finally, if you are going to feature women in advertisements, please use real women working in construction, talking about what a great job it can be. As Charmaine Young, of St George Regeneration pointed out at the conference, she could have provided some great examples

Monday, 14 April 2008

Mystic McWilliams

Doug McWilliams of the Centre for Economics and Business Research is that rare creature - an economist who makes the subject not only intelligible, but also entertaining. Taking his traditional lunchtime speaking spot at Simons Group annual client get-together the other day, he unabashedly acknowledged that in 2007 he failed to predict the credit squeeze. "I always thought bankers were the least credit-worthy individuals," he confessed, "but I was surprised that they wouldn't even want to lend to each other."

Doug predicted that post the Beijing Games, China would experience a slow-down, albeit with growth dropping to a still enviable 6%. The UK economy would suffer prolonged sluggish growth, rather than a recession As for UK construction, his view was a flat 2008, a flattish 2009 and a lift in 2010. Invest in high rise commercial property, came the advice - it gives plenty of scope to jump!

Women on the tools

A dispiriting announcement from ConstructionSkills, which despite spending £500,000 on a dedicated recruitment drive, has failed to meet its 2007 target for attracting women and ethnic minorities into the construction trades. Last year, the national body signed up only 299 such recruits, not only way below the target of 463 but also 22% lower than the number recruited in 2006. (Building magazine, 11 April)

According to the ConstructionSkills report, part of the problem is getting employers to provide work placements for diverse recruits. This is hardly a revelation to anyone who has worked on projects to attract women into the industry. Way back in 2002 Building Work for Women (BWW)was launched to work crack the problem of getting site placements and jobs for women to complete their NVQ training– and it did just that. All bar one of the women (many of whom were from ethnic groups) were found that vital 13 weeks site experience and were offered permanent work.

Tragically, BWW came to an end with the demise of its creator Women’s Education in Building, which closed for lack of funds after 20 years of training more construction tradeswomen in its modest unit under Westway than the whole of ConstructionSkills across the UK. Just imagine what £500,000 put towards this work might have achieved.

In the meantime, Women and Manual Trades (WAMT) has picked up the baton and is reinvigorating BWW with the support of original funders the London Development Agency. Let us hope that the commitment to attracting more women is reflected more practically than paying for expensive advertisements in fashion store changing rooms.

Afterthought: If ConstructionSkills has seen a 22% drop in women and ethnic minority recruits, yet the number of tradeswomen remains at 1.3% for the second year, who is delivering apprentices in sufficient numbers to maintain that overall figure? Answers on an email please.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Breaking the mould

Escaping from rain-drenched, traffic clogged Whitehall on a blustery March morning into the high colonnades of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office marked the start of a great day organised by the Financial Mail’s Women’s Forum. Up that wonderful grand staircase, (memories of Meryl Streep in the film Plenty, losing her mind before mystified diplomat husband Charles Dance), along the beautiful tesselated corridors (very tricky in stiletto heels) and into the sumptuous Locarno Suite.

There, under the glorious barrel vaulted ceiling and huge chandeliers gathered some 150 head teachers, of girls’ schools in the state and private sector, to hear leading women from business, politics and public life recount their experience of making it to the top. The topic was one close to my heart, “Are today’s bright young women getting the best career advice and achieving their potential?”

Debating the answers and more importantly, coming up with some practical ideas was the objective of Breaking the Mould, a conference organised by the Financial Mail with City of London School for Girls and St Albans Girls' School, Hertfordshire. The aim was to inject some imagination, excitement and verve into careers advice at school, and to raise the aspirations of young women heading for university and into the workplace.

Baroness Hayman, the Speaker of the House of Lords, set the scene, Theresa May swept in to deliver the pre-lunch lunchtime address and television’s Clive Anderson chaired the last afternoon session. In between the Financial Mail’s dynamic editor Lisa Buckingham encouraged spirited debate and kept a range of speakers on their toes, includingTerri Dial, group executive director of Lloyds TSB, Karen McCormick, chief executive of Cheshire Building Society and Sara Murray, MD of Buddi and founder of

I was the sole construction industry representative, speaking in the first session entitled Challenging the male domain. I shared the platform with three impressive and charming women: Judy Clements, director of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, Natalie Ayres, a former director of Microsoft and now an entrepreneur and Gill Evans, detective inspector from the Metropolitan Police.

What a day it was – a heady combination of entertaining tales from impressive women, lively debate, tough talk and plenty of humour – all done with great style. In the evening speakers and delegates were hosted at a reception in the House of Lords by the redoubtable and charming Lady Howells to see young winners of the Breaking the Mould competition receive their £1,000 awards. Particularly interesting were Nicola McFayden, 14, from Lanarkshire, who developed a product to prevent deep vein thrombosis and Yasmin Hilder, 13, from Cornwall, devised an ecofriendly toothbrush and 11 year old Mia Radkiewicz, from Hampshire, invented a disposable coffee cup with a temperature strip.

What next? Well, I have had three invitations to speak at girls’ schools about the construction industry and connected a head teacher with a contractor to talk about work experience and site visits. I also met a young woman who had originally trained as a motor vehicle mechanic, become a teacher of English and drama and who had volunteered as a careers teacher to ensure that pupils at her school really knew about the choices they had. So she is an ideal contact for the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET and hopefully will be supported in the work she is doing.

(Those who share my passion for historic buildings and would like to know more about the Locarno Suite and its rescue go to the FCO website.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Listen carefully - I will say zis only once....

A story about George Wimpey Homes taking the novel step of banning wolf-whistling on their sites in Bristol was seized on with enthusiasm by the media today. Richard Goad, the housebuilder's sales and marketing director, announced that wolf whistling was banned on all six sites in the area and remarked, "I know lots of women don’t mind it – my wife is thrilled if she gets a whistle, and she’s not happy about me bringing this measure in – but it does make many women feel uncomfortable."

When reading the piece, a wave of deja vu washed over me. I was sure that I had heard this story before. A quick Google produced a a rush of hits - including a Woman's Hour feature back in 2001 after a couple of builders proposed to stop pursing their lips at passing women.

But one particular entry caught my eye. Splashed all over the BBC News on this very same day last year was the very same Richard Goad, announcing that wolf whistles were banned on all George Wimpey Homes sites - in South Wales. "The reality is that nowadays more and more women visit our sites looking for a new house because many are in a position to afford to buy on their own," said Mr Goad in April 2007 .

Why ban wolfwhistles across the country when you can repeat the headline every Spring - especially in a fragile market?

Building magazine
4 April 2008

Monday, 31 March 2008

Meeting and greeting

Another state visit, another outbreak of official kissing. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, not known for public displays of affection, surprised us all with his determination to kiss both flawless cheeks of the President of France's new wife and former supermodel Carla Bruni last week. Whether or not Prime Minister Brown was entirely comfortable in doing so, it appears that kissing is becoming part of the day's work.

It all seemed to start back in 2004. President Bush congratulated Condoleeza Rice on her appointment as Secretary of State with a kiss on both cheeks. Two days later, he congratulated new education secretary Margaret Spelling with a kiss, but this time full on the lips. Consternation in the media and much debate about whether this famously domestic president was simply brushing up his international credentials - and just how far this enthusiasm was going.

The following year, at the funeral of Pope John Paul II, Condoleeza Rice experienced the continental panache of French President Jacques Chirac when he opted to kiss her gloved hand rather than cheek. A few weeks later, Germany's Angela Merkel received the same treatment on her first visit to France as Chancellor. Prince Charles took the hand to the lips route with Mrs Sarkozy this week too.

However, it has been reported that Merkel is less enthusiastic about Mr Sarkozy's exuberant double cheek kisses. Political people watchers have certainly noted a variety of more cautious approaches to greeting Germany's first woman head of state. Tony Blair, a one cheek kiss. Vladimir Putin, hand shake and half embrace. Romano Prodi, the Italian Prime Minister, half embrace. Mr Harper, handshake and a pat on the shoulder. Japan's Shinzo Abe, handshake. And Mr Bush? A handshake.

The more measured approach would seem to be wise. This week businesswoman Christine Rich won £2million compensation for sexual harassment from PriceWaterhouseCoopers Australia after claiming a decade of harassment and bullying. She told the court that her boss repeatedly greeted her with a kiss, despite being told not to do so.

So I will stick to my own well established rule on the business of kissing at work, which male colleagues seem to find useful and keeps a simple level playing field in meetings. Before 6.00pm it is handshake only.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Ozzie rules

Some houseowners in Sydney opened their eyes to a shock the other day. Their wonderful (and very valuable) views to the harbour and ocean were blocked by large shipping containers, placed there by local authority officers convinced that the trees that had previously stood on the sites had been deliberately killed.

Other houseowners faced large hoardings stating that trees had been poisoned. Unmoved by rsidents who claimed innocence, officials are applying the school principle of ‘no confession, collective punishment.’

Perhaps we could take a similar approach to developers who cut down preserved trees on prime sites and simply factor in the fine as part of enabling costs. Sinking a tall concrete pillar labelled ‘This was a tree’ might be a more effective deterrent.

Source: Daily Telegraph 24 March 2008

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Down, round and under

Television presenter Maggie Philbin is a great example of how some women find a way around the boulders that are put in their career path. Speaking at a conference in Church House, London* last month, she described how despite being deflected from a scientific career by her teachers, she found her own route.

Persuaded to study English and Drama at Manchester University, she found herself looking wistfully through the window at the medical students who congregated tantalisingly close across the campus. However, she completed her arts degree and began a career in children’s tv and radio programmes. This led to an opportunity to work on Tomorrow’s World, finding herself in her element and confounding those rash enough to take her at face value. “You’re not as stupid as you look,” was one comment. She has gone on to become a respected and successful specialist in medical matters.

The story brought back my own memories of being driven inexorably down the classics and literature route at school and fighting to take scientific subjects as well as Latin and History before finding the route into construction through journalism. Career advice seems slow to change.

* Raising the Profile of Women Scientists and Engineers within the Media: The Annual Conference of the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET. www.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Reality tv?

After hearing Dame Eliza Manningham Buller speak at the Women in Property dinner and impressed by the fact that 44% of staff at MI5 is female, I investigated further and found some food for thought.

Employment in MI5 offers particularly good social security benefits. Women who have been in MI5 for at least a year are entitled to six months maternity leave on full pay. As well as a further six months - half on statutory maternity pay, half on additional unpaid maternity leave - women in MI5 can have another year on unpaid special leave, making two years in total. Fathers get two weeks paternity leave on full pay.

Yet whilst the number of applicants in general to MI5 has risen in the past two years, as well as the numbers employed, the number of women applicants has fallen from a half to one third and the number of women employed has fallen from more than 50% to 44%.

In an effort to stop this downward trend, a female oriented advertising campaign in gyms and sports clubs was run, as well as national media advertising and links from the BBC Spooks website to the recruitment department at MI5… which may explain the turnoff.

Despite a particularly grisly episode of the popular espionage series resulting in some 11,500 applications to join the service, some MI5 officials believe that Spooks may have contributed to the significant fall in the number of women applying to join the agency. Certainly Dame Eliza has publicly expressed concern about the violent and macho culture depicted in the the programme. "We want to attract more females but the Spooks programme may be having a bad effect because of the way some of the female characters have been killed off," an intelligence source has said.

After hearing all the reasons why we need more women role models in tv drama and the media at the annual conference of the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET, one can’t help thinking of the old proverb "Be careful what you wish."

Mind you, working in the construction and property sectors where women represent just 10% of the workforce, concern about a fall from 50% to 44% is a problem some of us wouldn’t mind having.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Flight of fancy

Heard the best joke of the year, at the UK Resource Centre for Women’s 4th Annual Conference, in Church House, Central London. Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark recounted hearing a female pilot welcoming passengers on board her flight from Scotland the evening before. The next announcement came from the co-pilot - also a woman.

Kirsty asked the senior stewardess if she could go into the cockpit and meet them. "I’m sure they’d be delighted to speak to you," came the response, "but in this team, we don’t call it the cockpit."

The theme of the conference was Raising the Profile of Women Scientists and Engineers within the Media.

More information:

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Shaken not stirred - meeting the real M

Only a handful of us arriving at the RIBA for the Annual Dinner of the South East branch of Women in Property knew who the guest speaker for the evening was – and when we found out, the reason for secrecy became clear. Dame Eliza Manningham Buller, who retired as Director General of MI5 in 2005, took the stage to describe her extraordinary career in the Secret Service, which began after a chance meeting at a drinks party when she was working as an English teacher after graduating from Oxford.

An expert in counter-terrorism, she was involved in the Lockerbie investigation, served as MI5's liaison officer in Washington and became director of counter-terrorism in Ireland, spearheading the fight against the Provisional IRA.

One of her achievements as Director General at MI5 was to open up the traditional covert recruitment network that had led to her own career path. Dame Eliza established a website and recruited agents through newspaper advertisements. Staff numbers increased from 1,800 to nearly 3,500, but despite the pace set by such great change at a time of high national security, she developed a reputation for taking time to recognise personally achievements by individuals and the pressures of the job. She fostered a number of programmes around staff recruitment, training and development to ensure that all officers have the opportunity to flourish.

She also took a higher personal profile than her predecessors – although declaring on retirement that she would not write her memoirs. She allowed terror risk assessments to be made public for the first time., revealing that five major conspiracies had been thwarted since the July 2005 bombs in London, and that there were investigations into some 200 networks involving 1,600 people and as many as thirty specific plots.

Responding to the inevitable question about the accuracy of tv programmes, she said that real life espionage is hard work governed by the need to work within rules, not like Spooks, "where everything is solved by half a dozen people who break endless laws to achieve these results in one episode."

Her dedication to serving her country is transparent, as is her talent as a leader and motivator. It was a privilege and pleasure not only to hear, but also share a table with a woman demonstrating such a rare combination of intellect, professionalism and warmth.

More information about Women in Property and in particular a follow-up event to Dame Eliza Manningham Buller’s speech go to: