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6th Mar, 2024

Victoria Sartain
Victoria Sartain
Job Title
Senior Content Writer

As a recruitment company, we’re natural advocates of women in the workplace, championing their longevity in business through initiatives such as our Women in Technology mentoring programme. Resilience, ambition, balancing work and personal life, and filling more seats in the boardroom are hallmarks of today’s professional woman, and regardless of individual corporate goals, women who show up to work feel more empowered. This might be through developing skills, realising dreams and making lasting friendships, not to mention the independence that comes with having your own income.

With this year’s International Women’s Day theme being, ‘Inspire inclusion’, we spoke to Dr Michèle Dix CBE, Commissioner at National Infrastructure Commission, about her lifelong career in civil engineering. While technically retired, Michèle continues to use her decades of experience to enhance projects that make a difference.

We also meet Kathryn Imrie, Chief Consumer Officer at Pets at Home, who didn't let a diagnosis of dyslexia stop her from rising to the top.

Dr Michèle Dix CBE, Commissioner at National Infrastructure Commission

Watch the video of Dr Michèle Dix or read the full interview below:

Q: When you first began your career, did you always plan to rise to senior leadership?

A: I've never sought to plan my life. I've never had goals, that say, by such and such a time, I will be here. I’ve followed a policy of going for things I thought I would enjoy, so things would arise and I'd make a decision: ‘I'll follow that because I think I'd really enjoy it.’ And I was never influenced by whether or not it was a promotion, or whether or not it was just a sideways move. It was more: ‘Is that is that something I want to do? And will I enjoy doing it?’ 

I did a civil engineering degree because I wasn't sure what I wanted to do at uni. A careers officer came to our school, which was an all-girls grammar school, and asked me the subjects I liked. And I liked maths and physics and stuff like that. But I was also really good at art and designing and creating things and she, because it was a female careers person, said, "Well, I think you might like civil engineering." 

I said tell me a bit more about that. And yeah, that sounds good, I think I'd enjoy that. So, I went did a civil engineering degree and enjoyed it. I enjoyed university life and thought maybe I could lecture. I thought I better get a PhD because most people have a doctorate. And I love transport, the topic of transport within the civil engineering course, so I did a PhD in transport, and then thought a good lecturer is one who who's had some work experience, particularly in a vocational subject like civil engineering, so I better get some vocational experience and also I'll go to London because by then I was married and my husband and I could both get good jobs in London together. 

It was a bit more difficult in other parts of the country at that time, and thankfully it's not so bad now. And we came down to London and I got a job with the GLC, Greater London Council, as was. Ken Livingstone was the leader at the time and just doing exciting things in terms of what was going on work wise, and I enjoyed that. 

And I also thought if I want to be a lecturer, I'd better go and see if I like lecturing. So, I got myself a night-time, part-time job lecturing at Thames Polytechnic, and I used to go across from the GLC to college on my moped, teach a couple of hours, and then go across the Blackwall Tunnel back home to where we were living in Leyton. 

And after a year I thought, I don't like this because you put all this effort in, and not necessarily do you get what you want out of every kid. Whereas at work you put all this effort in, and you seem to get a lot of stuff back. It made me decide, actually, I liked doing the work I was doing, particularly at the GLC. And the more you put into a job, the more you get out of a job. And I'm not saying in teaching it's not the same, but I think it's harder. 

Q: What project are you most proud of? 

A: The thing that I'm most proud of, because I was involved in it from the beginning to the end, was the congestion charging scheme. So, the congestion charging scheme, I'd worked on a couple of projects for London first and then a big project for the government in terms of defining what could any new mayor, if they had the powers for introducing road use charging, what could they do with those powers? What sort of scheme would be operable? What scheme would be feasible and acceptable. And working (in terms of advising) what that could be as a consultant. Then when Ken Livingstone did become Mayor of London and decided that he wanted to take forward those powers, then getting the job as the director of congestion charging in order to take that scheme forward, to develop it, get the powers, implement all the complementary measures that go alongside it and operate it, and more importantly to do that as a job share, as I have two kids. 

It was a job that would be 24-7. It would be really rewarding, but it would involve a lot of time. So, I couldn't do it by myself part time, certainly. And I've been part time ever since I've had the kids. So, I persuaded a colleague of mine from the GLC, (one of my friends) that he'd want to do it as well. 

We applied and got the job. So doing that together and seeing it from the very beginning right through to putting the scheme in, it working, when nobody thought it would work, and expanding it in terms of using the powers for the low emission zone, and using the powers for the ultra-low emission zone for Central London, was a case of trying to make a difference to London. 

I'm very, very proud we did that, because that was in an environment where people wanted it to go in, but the closer it came to putting it in, the more people got concerned about it. The other scheme that I'm proud of is the cable car. It was built in a short space of time. It allows people to get across from the Greenwich Peninsula to the Docklands area. It provides resilience to that area and importantly the cable car covers its face in terms of fares that are collected and the costs of running it. 

And even though people might treat it as a tourist attraction, it does provide resilience to the Greenwich Peninsula if the Jubilee line goes down. And it's a fabulous way of getting across the river if you don't want to go on the tube. Quite a few people go to see the views from it because it's just beautiful, and it was also to help trigger development on both sides of the river. 

Q: What drives your ambition? 

A: I think wanting to do things that are worthwhile, and impact on society positively. Which is why I like the transport part of my civil engineering course. Everybody's got an opinion on transport. Everybody knows what the solution is, etc. So, it's very much involved with working with the public as well as politicians and other key stakeholders. The other thing that drives me is that I like work, and I like a challenge. 

I like the challenge of some of the things I've worked on. People might say, 'Why have you taken that up?'.’ Because I think that'll be interesting, and it makes going to work worthwhile’. I’m driven by wanting to do things that make a difference, which is why I liked congestion charging, the ultra-low emission zone and all those other things. 

Q: Can you share some advice a female mentor/someone you admired gave you that has stayed with you throughout your career? 

A: Well, unfortunately, because I was one of very few women in the civil engineering world back in the seventies, I didn't have any mentor or anyone to give me advice: even a man to give me any advice. But what I had done is learned a lot myself. If I've got mentees, and I'm very honoured to be asked to mentor people, then this is advice I share with them. And I think one of the main ones is, is to is to go for things that you would enjoy. Don't be tempted to take up something just because it's got a title that sounds more important than your existing title. 

Q: What advice would you give to the next generation of women looking to succeed as you have? 

A: Don't spend your time thinking, I need to be a director by x. You don't need to be a director by x; you need to be fulfilled by then. And just having a title might not give you that fulfilment. So do stuff that you enjoy. I think the other thing is to also make sure that when you are in a role that you're honest and tell people when things aren't right, you know, if you need something, ask for it. Sort it out. Don't let things get on top of you. Have a conversation and make sure you always have a nice conversation. 

The third one would be, make sure you get your work-life balance right because if you're at work, you need to enjoy it, but you also need life outside of work. You need friends outside of work. You need to make sure you give time to your family as well. And striking that work-life balance is important. Now it's great that it's much easier for people to do that because it's recognised that part-time working/job shares and all the other workplace adjustments make for a better business, [and employers] can get more people within the business, men as well as women. 

Q: What have been the biggest hurdles you have overcome on your way to the top? Did you/do you face them with a tried and trusted- or creative approach? 

A: It was only really in later years when I appreciated more the hurdles that perhaps younger people were experiencing, that it made me more aware of there being hurdles, which sounds bad because I hadn't experienced it myself. But because I was aware that there are hurdles and prejudice and all the rest of it, then obviously that's why I wanted to support women's groups and, and mentor people in terms of helping overcome some of those things.  

But the closest I've got, I suppose, to a hurdle was when I finally became a board member and was quite often the only woman. I was aware that I'd be saying something that the others weren't saying. They'd all say something similar, and I'd say something different. And I was thinking, is it because is it because I just think differently? Is it because I'm a woman? If there were other women around the table, would they be saying similar things to me? And I think that mix of people on a board is more likely to lead to more different views being expressed.  

The only thing I did do once was that was when I worked for a consultancy. There was a director there who was who was very unreasonable, and he made unreasonable requests of people in terms of work. And he upset people, and one day he upset me. So, I decided I was going to tell him he upset me. I went in to speak to him and started blubbing because, you know, when you get emotional, you can blub. And he said, if you’re going to cry, kindly leave the room. I said, no, because I need to tell you this. I explained that he was being unreasonable. He probably didn't realise that. And anyway, no one had ever told him that before, and after that it he was much better. 

So, the moral of the story is, even if you want to blub, tell somebody what you think. They are either reasonable people and they haven't been told before, or if they're not, then maybe you don't want to work for them anymore. But he changed. 

Q: What most excites you about your career? 

A: What excites me most is, I suppose, why I went in for it. It has an impact on people and everyone has an opinion of it. When I retired, in my retirement speech, what I was excited about was that with my first grandson, as soon as he's old enough, which is soon, I want to take him on a train into London and show him all the things that grandma’s had an involvement in, you know, point them out. 

And then if I live long enough, hopefully I might be able to take him into London and show him Crossrail 2 [Michèle's final project before retirement] in the hope that it will eventually get built.  

Kathryn Imrie, Chief Consumer Officer, Pets at Home

Kathryn Imrie > International Women's Day 2024 blog

Q: When you first began your career, did you always plan to rise to senior leadership?

A: Absolutely not, I felt like a fish out of water at the start. Everyone around me seemed so self-assured and confident and there was a whole lingo I had to learn. At the time, I just wanted to secure a lifestyle that allowed me to have fun with friends and go to as many music gigs as possible!

Q: What drives your ambition?

A: Fixing problems. I love driving solutions that make people's lives easier or in some small way makes the world an easier, more enjoyable place. In the end we are all consumers, we all have our own challenges and individual desires but there are quite often large themes. Whether it was working out how to contribute to creating a superfast internet connection, or WiFi that worked, or ensuring that new pet owners have access to advice, support and the right products and services for their specific pet's needs and their budgets. When I see something that could be meaningfully better, it drives me to find out how to make it happen.

Q: Can you share some advice a female mentor/someone you admired gave you that has stayed with you throughout your career?

A: People won't remember what you said or did, but they will remember how you made them feel.

Q: What have been the biggest hurdles you have overcome on your way to the top? Did you/do you face them with a tried and trusted- or creative approach?

A: Learning to trust my own skills! I am dyslexic and can't spell for toffee, so grammar has always been an alien world that doesn't come easy to me. There is no denying that starting a career in marketing, reviewing Direct Mail packs, was hard, but I have developed many other skills. For one, my verbal communication skills grew out of necessity and have become really strong. My biggest hurdle though was believing in myself. When you believe in yourself, it's easier for others to believe in you.

Q: What advice would you give to the next generation of women looking to succeed as you have?

A: Follow your heart and find something that sparks passion within you. I would also encourage you to trust yourself. Never stop listening to feedback and ensure you use it to learn and grow, and the journey will become far easier.

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