Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A big hand for the drama queens!

Dame Helen Mirren with co-host Rosario Dawson at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo

I promised a follow-up on my first report on the recent CIC Diversity Panel Seminar looking at how to increase the number of women on company boards. Entitled Constructive Women (nice title!!) and led by the redoubtable duo of structural engineer Jane Wernick and architect Angela Brady, current President of the RIBA, the event included a workshop facilitated by a 'thought leader in executive and top talent development.'

It quickly became apparent that this thought leader was not going to attract many followers. The audience restiveness quickly began with her remarks dismissing women non-executives directors as the “usual ten individuals who do very little except drink champagne”, followed by the suggestion to move on from promoting gender diversity – old hat and counter-productive apparently. However tension came to the boil with her advice that women aspiring to get on the board should not behave like  ‘drama queens.’

Delegate after delegate rose to express their anger at both the arguments and the tone of voice. But as one organizer gamely commented, “How refreshing to get a real debate, rather than a chorus of consensus.”  Relative calm was restored and a number of practical actions were discussed in small groups. Congratulations to Jane and Angela for driving the agenda.

The phrase ‘drama queens’ came back loud and clear this week, however, in a decidedly positive way. Hosting the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo, Norway on Sunday 10 December, Dame Helen Mirren saw an opportunity and seized it. She combined her admiration and congratulation for the three women winners with the comment that it is shameful that only 12 women have won the Nobel Peace Prize in 112 years. 

Three extraordinary women, changing the world.

The three women honoured for their work are Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian women's rights activist Leymah Gbowee, and democracy activist Tawakkul Karman, from Yemen. Commenting how important women historically have always been, specifically in terms of peace,  Dame Helen described them as the role models for young women, adding, ''It is only a step on a journey that women are taking, and hopefully in 20-30 years' time we will be looking at a very different scenario in the world.”

Meryl Streep - Vogue's oldest cover girl
Two days later and the extraordinary actress Meryl Streep is talking on Radio 4 about her latest role as Margaret Thatcher, in The Iron Lady. Filming began with her portraying  Thatcher's early days in Parliament as Education Secretary, and Streep describes the sensation of walking into Parliament as a woman at that time as walking into a bath of fire. She goes on to say how she began to appreciate what it takes to be a leader, “what it takes to stand up to that level of distain, hatred and contempt every day, unrelentingly, and then get things done.”

Later in the interview, Streep talks about her support for the construction of a National Women's History Museum, in Washington DC, a proposal that is taking Congress for ever to endorse, despite the fact that it is being entirely privately funded. She has just given her salary from The Iron Lady to the cause and recently gathered a crowd of ground breakers for a photo opportunity. Amongst them was Madeline Albright, (the first woman Secretary of State in the US) who told her that she didn’t agree wih any of Margaret Thatcher’s policies, but “she was the only one who stood up with us in Bosnia and I’ll never forget it. I know what it’s like to be the first.”

In my first report on the CIC Diversity Panel seminar, I make the point that construction and engineering needed to recognize the influence of women as clients – ie the providers of business and revenue. Streep makes a similar point. Asked whether things are getting better for older actresses, she says that it is, commenting that there are more women in “the decision-making echelons of our business, the financial end who are in a position to green light pictures. We have infiltrated the enemy ranks!”

So if behaving like a drama queen means using position, authority and articulacy to make change for other women, I am all for it. As Dame Helen says, ''In my personal experience, wherever there was a force for the positive, for creativity, it was almost always led by women and they are doing it with no recognition and under very difficult circumstances. It is so important for all of us to realise that these movements start in very, very small ways.'' 

A standing ovation please, or at least three loud cheers for these leading ladies.

Supplementary trivia:
Helen Mirren and I were contemporaries in the same Essex town. She went to St Bernard's Convent, which my mother rejected when we found ourselves just one road out of the catchment area for our first choice of Westcliff High School.  "Convent girls tend to go off the rails," she declared, so I cycled four miles each way every day to Southend High School instead. 
I turned down a job at Vogue, many years ago when working as a fashion journalist. In those days, the job itself was considered to be sufficient reward and most youung women working there were assumed to have private incomes. It was the economy stupid, (I needed to pay the rent) so I missed my Devil wears Prada moment. Clearly not a sufficiently dedicated follower of fashion, I returned to the field that really excites me, construction and engineering.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Who's that girl/woman/captain of industry......

There we were, listening to the head of one of the most successful engineering companies in the world declaring his support for promoting women on to boards. The event was a seminar organised by the Diversity Group of the Construction Industry Council in conjunction with Architects for Change. All rather encouraging, until the moment that reminded me, yet again, that construction and engineering lives in its own strange bubble. Brandishing a recent copy of the Financial Times women in business supplement, he asked the assembled audience if anyone recognized the woman on the cover - before declaring that he himself did not know who she was.

The woman in question was Irene Rosenfeld, Chief Executive of Kraft, who has attracted fury in the UK with her handling of the acquisition of Cadbury last year. Admittedly she doesn’t visit the UK often – in fact refusing to attend a Select Committee inquiry into the take-over in May this year– but even so her face has been  splashed over the business pages for weeks.  The controversy continues with her recent decision to split Kraft into two companies. And Allan Cooke, Chairman of Atkins, didn’t know her?

It reminded me of the day I put a series of women’s faces on the screen at a workshop at Simons Group, asking the assembled directors and staff if they recognized them.  And they didn’t – not even some of the women who held senior roles in companies who gave them business or who were influential in the world of property and retail. This inspired me to set up a mentoring programme with senior women from clients with high potential women from Simons – not only did the individual women benefit, but the profile of all them was raised.

This  incident  confirms my long held belief that people working in construction and engineering have huge difficulty recognizing not only the women working in their own industry but also in the rest of business world. If the woman who earns more than £11 million a year running a global company is invisible,  what hope is there for lesser female mortals in our industry who aspire to get on a board?

More on the CIC Diversity seminar later......

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Fanfare for the uncommon man - and woman

The award-winning Imperial College Big Band:  engineers, scientists and medical students,  making  music around the world
The other morning,  switching from Radio 4 to Radio 3 – a habit usually triggered by the sports reports - I hear a charming interview with a retired civil engineer. He recounts how he decided to learn to play a musical instrument at the same time as embarking on his degree course and in a relatively short space of time became sufficiently proficient to play with the university orchestra. He then discovered that as his career took him to projects around the country and then further afield, he could quickly find new friends in new places by joining the local music-making scene.  He travelled the world with his trumpet, which seems to have become a universal social passport giving added pleasure to his construction career.

Captivating - Heatherwick Studio's giant dandelion housing the British Pavilion at the Shanghai 2010 Expo
A few days later I am in the Great Hall of the Royal Institute of British Architects to hear the Annual Lecture delivered by the designer Thomas Heatherwick who creates extraordinary structures such as the Seed Cathedral for the British pavilion at the Shanghai 2010 Expo. The range and creativity of his work, from handbags to monumental sculpture, from glass bridges to the new Routemaster bus, has led to him being labeled a modern Renaissance man. At dinner afterwards, I am seated next to Heatherwick senior, who was a music teacher for many years and tells me that his son Thomas was a more than competent musician – playing the trumpet.

Last Friday evening is spent just a few minutes from home, in St Johns Smith Square, the wonderful Baroque church built for Queen Anne in 1728 and which has become one of London’s favourite concert halls. The players of the resident London Chamber Orchestra not only make music of wonderful quality but also deliver it with such a joie de vivre  that their concerts sell out fast.  Conducted by the exuberant Christopher Warren-Green, tonight’s attraction is the outstanding trumpeter Alison Balsom, who started her career with the LCO and has become an international star.

Alison Balsom, taking the classical trumpet to new heights and new audiences

As the glorious golden notes of the trumpet soar upwards, I think of the recurring theme of this joyous instrument and the power it evokes. From tumbling those walls of Jericho to helping an engineer finding new friends far from home, from a designer challenging the norm in buildings to a young woman triumphing in a world dominated so long by male giants such as Crispian Steele-Perkins and Håkan Hardenberger.

Above all, trumpet music lifts the spirits. As the Reverend Sydney Smith, the great 18th-century wit and raconteur, is said to have declared,  his idea of heaven was 'eating paté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets.'


Thursday, 29 September 2011

Towering genius

Coffee time in San Giuliano Termi

Back in Tuscany a year after the visit that laid me low (see Discovering a dynamic Duchess) and we are catching up with lost opportunities. So on a hot and sunny Saturday we decide to go to the place that any engineer and self-respecting lover of fine buildings must go when in northern Tuscany. We are off to Pisa, the place where an extraordinary structure has defied expectation and gravity to remain vertical (but not perpendicular) for more than 800 years.    

We take the scenic route via San Giuliano Termi rather than the autostrada. This turns out to be a treat. San Guiliano Termi is a charming sun-kissed, tree-filled place high in the hills above Pisa, with that particular air of elegance and calm that typifies spa towns from Leamington to Vichy, Cheltenham to Baden Baden. The little square has a view of the ornate facade of the main spa, and a traditional bar serving excellent coffee and light, sweet pastries.    

Cool marble and golden roof
The magnificent bronze doors of the Duomo
On the road again, and as the temperature rises to 33 degrees we twist and turn steeply down to the plain of the Arno. By good fortune we find a parking space just a short walk from a gateway through Pisa's high and ancient walls. By even greater fortune, the gate turns out to be the closest point of entry for the area known, quite rightly, as the Campo dei Miracoli (the Field of Miracles). 

The Duomo, a glorious cathedral filled with light and space. The Baptistry with its magical acoustic, the Cemetery with its simple windowless walls stretching the length of the square.

The tower bows to the Duomo
The Leaning Tower is there, in all its breathless, idiosyncratic splendour, amongst a group of extraordinary buildings which rise in cool, confident beauty above the souvenir shops, tourists jostling for the perfect photograph, students clutching MacDonalds bags and squawking into mobile phones.  And how heartening to know that it is a calm, self-effacing, British engineer who has succeeded in stabilising the tower, which has been challenging great minds since beginning to lean shortly after construction began in 1173.  

Professor John Burland, of Imperial College London, was the man who convinced a multi-disciplinary committee, set up by the Italian Prime Minister in 1990, that soil extraction was the solution. (The only other non-Italian on the 14 strong committee was an American who died of a heart attack in 1996, believed to have been largely caused by the stress of the Pisa challenge.)   

The need to resolve the situation became acute in 1995 when despite various attempts, including tensioned cables and lead weights, did not prevent the lean becoming a lurch and the world thought that the tower was on the brink of collapse. 

Similar to microsurgery, Professor Burland's proposal entailed drilling out slivers of soil, using using delicate, Archimedes-screw drills from beneath the northern side of the tower - away from the lean - and allowing gravity to coax the structure upright. It had the advantage of not touching the tower itself, thus keeping art historians happy. 

Even when the Burland proposal was adopted, it was not until 1999 that work began. Twice a day, for the next two years, details of the movement of the tower and the surrounding earth were sent to Professor Burland, wherever he happened to be in the world, for him to calculate how much soil was to be removed over the next 12 hour period. In total 70 tonnes were removed and in 2001, to joy and relief of all, the Leaning Tower was not only re-opened to the public after ten years, but was also declared stable for at least the next 300 years. 

Not content to rest on his laurels, Professor Burland then set about identifying why the tower was leaning and discovered that there was significant difference in the water table between the ground to the north and to the south. This provided the information necessary to manage and drain the soil appropriately to create a more stable foundation. A miracle of engineering to save a wonder of the world.     

All photographs by Sandi

Friday, 17 June 2011

Sugar and spice and all things nice?

There I was at the 5th anniversary celebration of Women2Win, hearing how many women in banking, law and finance are being encouraged and supported to become Conservative MPs. The debate was brought to a close before I could leap to my feet to highlight the omission of women in engineering and construction from the pool of professional potential. However, I was able to have a chat with the guest speaker, Home Secretary the Rt Honourable Theresa May MP, who was quick to agree and enthusiastically recalled engineer Michelle McDowell's success in winning Veuve Cliquot Businesswoman of the Year just a few weeks earlier.

Little did I know that whilst we were discussing the skills of women engineers in politics and enterprise, Lord Sugar was firing aspiring apprentice Glen Ward, telling him (and 7m television viewers), “I have never yet come across an engineer who can turn his hands to business.”

The outcry over this astonishingly crass statement was immediate, with example after example of successful engineers flooding the internet. But unrepentant Lord Sugar simply dismisses them out of hand, for example describing James Dyson as an inventor and declaring that he doubted whether Bill Gates would describe himself as an engineer. All this from a man who progressed from running a market stall to making computers before focusing on property development to build his wealth. But remind me, what did happen to Amstrad – or is that his point?

On an upbeat note, Halcrow principal engineer Julie Hunt was one of several women engineers quoted by New Civil Engineer magazine this week. She said: “Lord Sugar’s comment on prime time TV could do considerable damage to the profile of engineering professions.

“However, as they say, there is no such thing a bad publicity − so let’s make the most of it, as did Wales after Anne Robinson’s outburst.”

Well said Julie. Move over sweetness and let's spread a little light.

Photograph of Lord Sugar from The Sun newspaper.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Pulling up the drawbridge - or the Queen Bee syndrome

In the past week we have heard three women at the top giving their reasons for rejecting quotas as a way of getting more women up there alongside them. Firstly Christina Odone in The Telegraph recounted in hushed, respectful tones about how carefully she prepared for her recent board meeting - no bright colours, sensible heels etc etc - and comfort of knowing that she was there purely on her merits. She would feel so undermined, she went on, if there was any suggestion that she had been appointed simply as part of a quota.

Lucy Kellaway took up the issue in the Financial Times, in her characteristic mix of airiness and acidity, recounting what fun it was to be a non exec director, especially as there was a fellow woman on the board to enjoy chats with in the loo. But she doesn't feel that companies should employ 'vaguely plausible' women non execs just to fill a quota and support the development of women in the organisation.

Then Helen Alexander of the CBI debated strongly against the quota proposals - again on the basis of merit - at a debate to launch this year's First Women Awards.

Why do these women fall into the trap - as do many men- of assuming that a quota system will simply result in the appointment of inadequate women? Do they really believe that being forced to find women will fail to identify any good ones?

It is difficult to resist the thought that those women who have cracked the system and reached board level (whether through merit, connections or simply a profile gained from writing amusing articles in a national newspaper) are quite happy to sustain this exclusive enclave.

It was reassuring not to be alone with my misgivings. My letter in response to Lucy Kellaway was published in the FT on Wednesday 2 March, along with two others critical of her stance. As Sarah Bond, of KPMG commented in her response, "There is nothing more profoundly disappointing than hearing a senior woman arguing that gender equality is not an issue, and little that lets boards off the hook quite so effectively. "

The text of the letters can be found at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f9d0d8da-4451-11e0-931d-00144feab49a.html#axzz1GC3UfVw7

Picture: Vincent van Gogh, Drawbridge with a Lady with a Parasol