INWED 2021 - Thursday

What follows are my own views based on my experiences during a career of nearly forty years. I have identified three areas where changes have occurred or where I think I have learnt key issues.

Changes to the working environment

Representation of women in the workplace has to a large extent depended on the industry/sector I worked in. I began my career teaching in a secondary school in the early 1980s. At this time women were well represented in the workforce but not necessarily at a senior level. This did change and improve during my ten years in education. 

Interestingly one of those years was spent in New Zealand as part of a teaching exchange and I taught in a girl’s secondary school. Here the situation was totally different and of a large staff only two or three were men. It made for a quite different teaching experience.

In the civil service women were poorly represented when I joined in 1990 but again this changed over the 18 years I was employed such that when I left it was unusual to attend a meeting where I felt I was in the minority. This was a notable difference and provided, in my view, a different atmosphere and more balance to discussions, and hopefully decision making.

When I joined an engineering company in 2008 it was a very male dominated environment and I felt I was very much in the minority (and often was in meetings). It felt as if, for some, it was a bit of a novelty to have a woman in the team. Again, this changed slowly over the ten years of my employment, but the culture remained very traditional.

What would I do differently? What have I learnt?

As a woman in a largely male world, it felt as though one must ‘be more like the men’ to gain equality. However, experience suggests to me that we as women have unique skills, which we should bring to the table, and we should not try to be the same as men.

I have tended to let my career happen but watching my younger friends and relatives it is a good idea to have a plan and not to leave everything to chance.

I would also say join a women’s group if there is one – for support, shared experience, representation at events. There are lots of benefits. 

I never had a formal mentor. There are lots of people I am grateful to for their support and experience, and many are woman but none of this was formal. So, my advice is find a mentor and work out how you want your career to progress. Don’t wait for things to happen.

Also volunteer for projects, etc, that you find interesting or exciting – make yourself visible.

What makes a good leader – not just for women?

I think this is a key issue for all business and industry in the modern world. I have worked for great and not so great leaders. For me those that stood out and that I remember for all the right reasons had the following qualities:
  • They liked their employees and their team. They generally liked and were interested in people and had their best interests at heart – this does not mean they were afraid of making tough decisions or challenging individuals or the status quo.
  • They were fair and treated me as they treated everyone in my team.
  • Life is so much better if a leader has empathy.
  • They communicated well and listened. Their door was always open – this is not always easy but the best leaders find a way.
  • They were interested in what I was doing and had time for me.
  • They were clear they wanted to know when there was a problem and didn’t try to pretend things do not ever go wrong.
  • When things went wrong, they wanted to learn the lessons and saw this as an essential way of improving the business.
  • The best leaders I have worked for recognised people’s strengths and worked to them for the benefit of the individual and the team.
  • The best leaders I worked for wanted us to enjoy work and they were kind.
For interest I have just ordered myself a book called ‘Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines' by Henrietta Heald. The ISBN Number is ISBN-10 1800180276. This book tells the story of Britain’s female engineers and was published to mark the centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society that was founded in 1919.

I hope some of this helps and is of interest. My best wishes and good luck in your careers.

Sally Hawkins, EEMUA MIPC Tutor

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