MT meets BDP's Michelle McDowell, the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year

This year's winner has forged a hugely successful career in an industry where senior women are relatively few and far between: civil engineering.

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
Michelle McDowell may not be a household name, but it's easy to see why the chair of civil and structural engineering at design agency BDP was selected as this year's Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year (by an esteemed panel of judges that included MT editor Matthew Gwyther). Not only is she one of the most senior figures in a traditionally male-dominated industry, but she also works hard to extol the benefits of an engineering career, both in her role at BDP and as head of industry association ACE. Since one of the priorities of this award is to inspire and motivate the next generation of high-achieving women, that's a CV that ticks all the right boxes...

Although you may not have heard of McDowell, you'll definitely have heard of some of her recent projects - they include the recent work at Wimbledon's All-England Club and the Royal Albert Hall, as well as the award-winning BBC Birmingham and Roche UK offices. In fact, she's had quite a year: as well as becoming the first woman to chair the ACE, she's also been awarded an MBE for services to the construction industry. This latest addition to her collection of gongs (not to mention her drinks cabinet) puts her in an exclusive club; past winners include the likes of Anita Roddick, Marjorie Scardino, Linda Bennett, Carolyn McCall and Laura Tenison. She says she's keen to use the opportunity to promote engineering. 'Women are still quite under-represented in the industry, so this is a fantastic platform to spread the word,' she says.

McDowell freely admits that she came to engineering slightly by accident. Her father, a science teacher, came home one day with a leaflet about a one-week construction industry residential course in Sheffield; she went, and was immediately hooked. Unfortunately, she thinks there's still a lack of awareness about engineering as a career. 'Things are improving, but there's a way to go.' But there's also a perception problem, she suggests. 'The image of the construction industry is quite outdated. Engineering offers a creative career - you can be sketching a design with architects, or doing advanced computer modelling, or using practical skills on site. So there's a huge variety of roles.'

Has her gender ever been a barrier to progress, we ask? 'It can be quite difficult when you're the only woman in all-male environment; you can feel like a bit of an outsider at times. But it also sets you apart; clients remember you.' McDowell is well known for her belief that the best approach to design projects is to have architects and engineers working together from the start - and she thinks this kind of collaborative, partnership-based approach is an area where women can excel. 'The traditional image of the construction industry is quite aggressive and confrontational, but we're moving away from that, and women really have a lot to contribute there.'

The lack of senior women isn't just a problem for the construction industry, of course; it's an hot topic right across UK plc at the moment. So where does McDowell think we're going wrong? 'I think it's a combination of things... Lots of women leave to have a family, and perhaps it's not easy enough for them to return.' Her own firm BDP is trying to combat this with return to work programmes and 'keep in touch' days for women on maternity leave. 'There's a wealth of talent there, and you've invested time and money in training them. So you really want them to come back, if they can.' Mentoring's also important, she says - she herself mentors several young women at BDP (though she's keen to stress that women don't necessarily need female mentors). But it's also about confidence, she suggests. 'There's no doubt in my mind that women have the skills and the ideas. It's just about building their confidence so they can express them.'

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