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.

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