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.