UK: Women on their metal. (4 of 4)

UK: Women on their metal. (4 of 4) - Patricia Vaz is general manager of BT Payphones, a £350 million business with 4,000 employees. Although not an engineer herself, she has some 3,000 engineering staff reporting to her.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Patricia Vaz is general manager of BT Payphones, a £350 million business with 4,000 employees. Although not an engineer herself, she has some 3,000 engineering staff reporting to her.

Vaz's career path has been most unusual. She began with BT in 1975 as clerical support in the personnel department. Four years later she was plucked out by the internal promotion board and put on a two-year training scheme that catapulted her into middle management and, she says, "saved me 10 years".

Spells in the traffic department and in sales were followed in 1984 by business systems engineering management. Here Vaz raised eyebrows not only by her sex but also by her lack of engineering qualifications. "At my first conference I was asked if I'd come along to take the notes," she recounts. In some ways she feels that not being an engineer enabled her to get better results. "I thought in a purely business way and looked upon the engineers as experts whose support I needed. That way I got their loyalty and respect."

A strikingly tall and erect figure, immaculately dressed, Vaz, like many successful women, is wary of positive discrimination. With her own engineering staff (of whom only about 100 are women), she says: "I try not to mitigate against the women. They are taught techniques for lifting and there are more pleasant facilities now."

Vaz herself is aiming high. BT has no women on its executive board and she "would like to be that woman". "But", she adds, "I won't lose sleep if I don't make it."

Isobel Pollock is divisional engineering manager at Du Pont Howson in Leeds. A chartered engineer, she is, at 36, the most senior woman, engineering or otherwise, within the company.

"I am aware of being treated differently," she says, "but people interact differently with different people and my philosophy is simply to get on with things." At school this meant five A levels - two maths, physics, chemistry and biology - followed by mechanical engineering at Imperial College London. "Engineering runs in the family," she says, with two brothers, various cousins and uncles as well as a husband in the profession.

After university Pollock spent 10 years with ICI, starting as a graduate trainee and moving up through a variety of departments, landing finally in the computer software department working on control systems. By 1987 she was ready for a change and moved to Du Pont Howson (then Howson-Algraphy) as special projects manager. A year later she was promoted to her current position, responsible for a staff of some 25 people. There is just one other technical woman - a draughtsperson - in the team.

But Pollock is used to minority status. She was recently invited to a meeting of the exclusive Westminster Dining Club. "It was fascinating," she said. "I realised I was much more used to walking into a room of 150 men than 150 women." Indeed, standing out as an individual is something she sees as a positive advantage: "Men have to strive to achieve an identity but women can easily use fashion and colour."

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