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7 lessons for women in a male-dominated industry

Jacqueline O'Donovan

On Women in Engineering Day, Jacqueline O'Donovan, managing director of O’Donovan Waste Disposal, talks about her strategies on coping in a male-dominated industry

A few years ago, the CIOB reported that women account for only 10 per cent of the construction workforce - a low, yet unsurprising number. I entered the industry at a young age, having to join in the running of the family business, O’Donovan Waste disposal, following the death of my father. My three siblings and I had to work together to keep the company going – it was certainly a challenging time. But today, as Managing Director, I am proud to look back at the work we have done turning O’Donovan into a company that sets industry standards for others to follow.

Entering an industry that was, and still is in some areas, predominately male at just 19 was not without its difficulties, but I quickly learnt to adapt and demonstrate that I didn’t just deserve to be there, but that I could flourish.

I believe women should support each other. My management team alone comprises a female compliance director, operations director, executive assistant and business development manager to name a few. But I didn’t hire them for gender diversity’s sake – they are talented and quite brilliant at their respective jobs.

Having looked back over my 30 years at O’Donovan, there have been a number of key lessons that I have learnt from being a female director in a male-dominated industry.

Not to underestimate my abilities

At 19, I was due to leave for Germany to be a nanny, but my situation quickly changed. I was needed at home to help with the business and found myself dealing with invoices, phone calls and accounts! Although it wasn’t what I had planned, I took quickly to the tasks at hand – always reminding myself that I was more than capable. As I took on more responsibility within the company, I began to challenge myself to look beyond the business and to consider how to improve the industry as a whole. Today, the time I have committed to improving safety across the sector has seen me collaborate with CLOCS, the Construction Logistics and Cyclist Safety organisation, on the design of innovative lorries and safety features which are changing the face of transport policies across the UK.

To laugh not cry

Despite being the youngest of four children, I often found that the day-to-day running of the company fell to me, as my sister had left for maternity leave and my brothers were on the road driving lorries. I would often not be taken seriously when I answered the phone, with clients demanding to speak to one of the male senior members of staff At first this frustrated me, but I just had to laugh at it and think of how I could tackle theproblem head on– one way I managed this was to train some of the male staff on the phones, putting me in charge and having others report in to me.

To forgive their assumptions

Throughout my time as Managing Director, I have often had to forgive my male counterparts for the assumptions they have made about me. Especially when starting out, many of the men in the company presumed I wasn’t savvy about certain regulations or equipment. I would ultimately surprise them with my knowledge of safe working practices, which I have strived to enforce during my time here. A key achievement for me was when I took over the safety and training of O’Donovan’s HGV drivers, even creating my own driver Certificate of Professional Competence course - one of the first to be tailored specifically to the exact training needs of drivers working across the waste industry.

To listen and learn – every day is an education

When you make up such a small proportion of the workforce, the most important first step is to observe how the company operates – not just the professional working practices but the relationships and dialogue between team members, and how you can be involved in that. You can also learn a lot by trying out different roles – for instance even if you enter at a managerial level, I would suggest spending a day with the contact centre or sales team and immersing yourself in the environment. Ask questions about their role and understand their daily tasks. As the company grew, I experienced every role across the business, which has ultimately helped me be a stronger leader by understanding every single member of the team. Your education doesn’t have to stop at your own company, by the way. I try and learn something from everyone I interact with, whether it be other Managing Directors or other businesses - gaining a well-rounded insight into your industry will always stand you in good stead.

That I can make a decision quicker than most males

When I’m in meetings, I’ve often found that while my co-workers are still discussing the ideas for innovation, for example, I would have already weighed up the options and decided which the better strategy is by the time the conversation is over. Everyone works differently, but I have noticed that I am more suited to multi-tasking, and when faced with a challenge, I am normally one of the first in the room to consider all of the angles and come to a conclusion.

Chivalry is not yet dead

Working with men day in and day out, you do build up a good rapport and they will begin to accept you as ‘one of them’, as it were. For me, the more I have worked with the other men within the company and the industry as a whole, the quicker their respect for me has grown, and they recognise my professionalism. That being said, chivalry is not dead. The men I encounter industry-wide are courteous towards me and respect me for who I am and what I have achieved.

That I have to shout louder to be heard – metaphorically  

I’ve always believed that actions speak louder than words – and this certainly applies to my experience as a woman entering a male industry. Rather than battling to be heard through bravado and words for the sake of words, I gradually stamped my authority on the business by implementing my beliefs and making a noticeable difference to not just O’Donovan but the industry. That gained the respect of my male counterparts more than any talking would have done.

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