#PressforProgress with Women at Weston Williamson

by Sonya Veerasamy, Vice-President of Women in Transport

 Victoria Hills - Image courtesy of Weston Williamson + Partners

Victoria Hills - Image courtesy of Weston Williamson + Partners

I was delighted to kick off International Women’s Day, with a few of the Women in Transport tribe, at a fabulous breakfast event hosted at Weston Williamson + Partners.

We were treated to an awesome line up of speakers including Victoria Hills, CEO at Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC), Sharon Young, Principal Project Engineer for the Step Free Access Programme at Transport for London (TfL), Kaye Stout, Partner at PTE Architects and Eugene Healy, Senior Associate at Weston Williamson + Partners.

Victoria Hills started her journey as a passionate geography student and knew she didn’t want to be a teacher. A town planning masters led her to a job in local government focusing on transport. Victoria started that first job on the day that “A New Deal for Transport” whitepaper was launched. This set the groundwork for a more sustainable approach to transport planning and cemented Victoria’s belief that transport was the right career for her. After some time at Steer Davies Gleeve, she joined the newly formed Greater London Authority (GLA); 13 years, 8 jobs and 3 mayors later she will be starting a new chapter in April as Chief Executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI). Victoria was once a board member for Women in Transport and we wish her every success in her new role.

Victoria has had an incredible career in transport and, with honesty and humour, generously shared her three top tips for getting ahead:

Networking: Spend real time, commitment and effort to build and grow your network and make it as diverse as possible. Diversity is not just about demographic, gender, age and race but also about diversity of approach and thought. Network with people that will challenge your ways of thinking and broaden your knowledge and experience. It pays off. At Women in Transport, we know the value of a strong network. I personally wouldn’t have the career I have today if I hadn’t joined this wonderful organisation.

Be on your game: It’s not enough to be passionate, you need knowledge and expertise. Do your homework. Education doesn’t stop at school.Learning is life long.

Challenge: Victoria shared her very honest observations of being pregnant in the office. She highlighted “leaving syndrome” where, although not consciously or deliberately, people start acting and planning as if you’re not there. Addressing everyone in the room, Victoria asked us to think about and challenge our own unconscious bias – remember that pregnant women still want to be involved and have value to contribute. Another point, for returning women: the job that you were doing might not be the job you go back to.Victoria recommends turning this into an opportunity. When she returned from maternity leave, she looked for the opportunities for something new and got a promotion. Don’t waste energy on negativity – it won’t help you progress forward.

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I was consistently told you can’t have it all. And that irked me. Why can’t we have it all.” 

Victoria Hills

Victoria continued, I was consistently told you can’t have it all. And that irked me. Why can’t we have it all.” 

From all appearances, it seems like Victoria has it all – a successful career, marriage and two wonderful children. She makes it work and says it is totally possible but with the following caveat:

1. It’s really, really hard work.
2. You have to really want it.
3. You have to stick with it.

Victoria also emphasised that it can still get a bit lonely at a senior level; parity is coming but there's still work to do, particularly around retention, attrition and how you hold on to talent. 

She shared her matrix for success, advising that it’s not enough to be clever, to want to do well and to work hard. Networking matters. You create your own luck. Nothing happens to you, you can make it happen. Her final thought; there’s never been a better time to be a woman, there are still challenges but our time is now!

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Sharon Young shared her personal career journey from not quite getting the A levels she needed to being sponsored for her degree at Liverpool University by BICC Cables, working in a factory where she was the only woman in 1,000 staff, to leading the Step Free Access Programme at TfL. Sharon leads a large, diverse team and has worked on various complex projects managing multi-disciplinary teams.

It was particularly interesting to hear about the challenges Sharon faced in her early career which included no access to female toilets, being forced to change in cupboards because there were inadequate changing facilities at the factory and, sadly, intimidation. It was inspiring to hear how she was able to overcome these challenges with positivity, good humour and resilience – essential ingredients in a male dominated environment.

As a mother of three, Sharon echoed Victoria's advice and added, “you will also feel guilty,but you need to acknowledge that you are doing the best job you can at work and at home – give yourself a break and a pat on the back”.

It was good to hear that Sharon has never come across discrimination at TfL and she spoke positively about the direct and indirect support she receives at work and elsewhere. She supports other women through mentoring, being a STEM ambassador, knowledge sharing and supporting industry events. 

She recently won the WICE award for best woman engineer and admitted to mixed feelings about a woman specific award. Why does it have to be separate? Why do we have to make a big thing of it? The reality is, despite significant progress, there are still challenges and gaps that need to be addressed and while these persist, we do need that separate effort. Her aim is not to have to discuss the gender of engineers and that it will just be engineers– one day.

A takeaway from Sharon’s talk was recognising the value of our gender differences and appreciating what both men and women bring to the table. We do think differently and, by acknowledging those differences and welcoming diversity of thought and approach, we can achieve better outcomes, together.

Kaye Stout was inspired to be an architect at an early age. She spoke passionately about challenging the perceptions of the construction industry as “lots of angry men in Wellington boots”. The tendency for architectural drawers is to  stop at the planning stage but Kaye doesn’t want that to be the case. She wants involvement at every stage to promote learning and integration in the industry. 

Her experience of the construction stage has been, for the most part, supportive and educational. But she recognises that it’s not an attractive field for many young people and that we need to look at different ways of doing things. Reducing the perception of combative relationships is one way, as is promoting gender parity. On site project work can be difficult to come by and PTE Architects is actively taking architects to site which is proving very popular. Kaye called all architects to embrace the opportunity for site work, stating, “more women in site huts and Wellington boots can only be a good thing!”

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All the speakers were excellent but I have to say I particularly enjoyed hearing from Eugene Healy. He is taking shared parenting leave from next week and he shared a fascinating insight into how it’s made him more conscious of the everyday gender stereotyping in our culture. For example, the baby changing room symbol.

Have you ever considered that, not only is this patronising to women who are assumed to be the nappy-changers but it also shames men into thinking they shouldn’t be changing their babies and aren’t welcome in these areas?

Eugene has a daughter and really doesn’t want her to grow up in an unfair world. He recognises that there are organisations that are trying to change and actively press for progress, like John Lewis and their genderless clothing range. But really, it’s not nearly enough. The latest AJ Women in Architecture Survey showed that there is a widening gap in gender for architects with a 56/44 men/women split at entry level and a massive disparity of 88/12 at partner level.

Shared parental leave promotes equality by allowing men and women to share childcare responsibly. However, as Eugene pointed out, it only works if men take it up. The legislation has been around in the UK since 2015 but, shockingly, only 2 per cent of men take it up. Eugene has friends who are doing it too and he counts himself lucky to have a progressive and supportive employer. We can certainly learn a lot from other countries like Sweden which has some of the most generous parental policies in Europe and where parents have been able to split their leave since 1971.
So why aren’t men taking up the opportunity in the UK?  Here are some thoughts from Eugene:

  • 50 per cent of existing organisations pay men 10 per cent more than women making it unattractive and financially difficult to split the leave. What can we all do? We need to push for progress to close the gender pay gap.
  • The policy isn’t promoted by businesses. Eugene calls on employers to actively encourage and champion the value of sharing parental leave.
  • The policy doesn’t go far enough! There are no independent rights and only statutory pay for men. We need to push for policy change.
  • Existing cultural stereotypes. There’s still a perception that it’s embarrassing and women’s work to look after the children. Eugene’s advice - get over it and get out of your own way!

The event came to a close with some thought provoking questions from the audience asking for the panels view on a wide range of topics including imposter syndrome, the need for family housing to accommodate live-in childcare and dealing with the challenge of  the perception that gender parity is no longer an issue that needs to be addressed. Since the World Economic Forum predicts it will take over 200 years before women earn as much as men and are equally represented in the workplace and evidence showing that the UK is falling behind other countries, there is still much work to do to #PressforProgress. 

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