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A woman’s world? Female leaders in East Anglia on thriving in a ‘male’ industry

Belinda Jennings, former head brewer at Woodfordes brewery in Woodbastwick. Picture: Keiron Tovell

Belinda Jennings, former head brewer at Woodfordes brewery in Woodbastwick. Picture: Keiron Tovell

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As part of our special Women’s Edition coverage, Bethany Whymark speaks to five women who are making a living – and causing a stir – in industries which once were the almost sole preserve of men.

Rebecca Deane, founder and director of The Rural Architect in Frettenham, an architectural firm which specialises in agricultural conversions. Picture: Rebecca DeaneRebecca Deane, founder and director of The Rural Architect in Frettenham, an architectural firm which specialises in agricultural conversions. Picture: Rebecca Deane

Rebecca Deane, founder and director at The Rural Architect in Frettenham

Being a farmer’s daughter, I have been around agriculture all my life. Seeing old farm buildings being given a new lease of life inspired me to study architecture.

At university my course was predominately a male environment. Whilst this was a challenge initially, I grew to love the competitive nature of this industry. My university had many female tutors who were great role models and inspired me to complete my degrees.

My passion for rural projects inevitably brings me down many farm drives. Having worked with many farmers, I do not feel that I have been treated any differently because of my gender. In fact I would say that farmers are impressed that a young female has gone into architecture and has such a passion for her work.

Attitudes towards female architects have adjusted over the years – I don’t think that the industry is thought of a male only industry anymore. Current university courses are also taking on more females, which may be due to female architect role models like the late Zaha Hadid and female presidents of the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects).

Emily Norton, owner of Nortons Dairy in Frettenham

In my farming childhood the women were as active as the men, maybe not in the field, but definitely in the boardroom, so I never saw farming as being a male dominated industry. My mother and cousin-in-law were running the business as much as my father, uncle and cousin.

From left, Emily Norton of Norton's Dairy, Sarah Hammond of English Peonies and Helen Reeve of Waveney Dexter Beef from the Norfolk Ladies in Agriculture group. Picture: Sonya DuncanFrom left, Emily Norton of Norton's Dairy, Sarah Hammond of English Peonies and Helen Reeve of Waveney Dexter Beef from the Norfolk Ladies in Agriculture group. Picture: Sonya Duncan

But I still remember the moment when my uncle said to me (I was about 8 years old) that “I should have been born a boy”. Perhaps he thought it was easier to sacrifice other commitments in favour of the farm if you are a man. But why? It certainly shouldn’t be – men who shun family commitments in favour of work are as guilty as women who use family as an excuse not to return to the workplace.

Physicality is less of an issue again now, and science, technology and people skills are needed more than ever.

Through our Norfolk Ladies in Agriculture networking group I meet amazing women, leading brilliant businesses providing valuable services, products and ideas. Women have been here working and managing farm business all along, but why are they not more visible?

Perhaps they are not present at traditional farming meetings, because (having been to a few) I suspect that those meetings are not offering the knowledge these people need. The standard “pale, male and stale” farm business conference, stuffed with tweed, surveyors and dinosaurs, is a self-aggrandising niche at best! Should we aspire to join that club?

Out in the real world, all genders are creating innovative and diverse food and farming businesses and it is our collective responsibility to champion these, in order to challenge entitlement and cultural bias.

Tackling everyday casual prejudice is necessary, but I challenge all who feel disadvantaged to be brave: confound the stereotypes and outsmart the critics. Change is coming!

Belinda Jennings, former head brewer at Woodfordes in Woodbastwick

Michelle Williams, creative director at Norwich marketing agency Creative Sponge. Picture: Creative SpongeMichelle Williams, creative director at Norwich marketing agency Creative Sponge. Picture: Creative Sponge

“I haven’t really had any real issues, positive or negative, in my work. Some of that may be down to character rather than gender, but on occasions it does arise and it still shocks me.

“Only the other day I was in our brewery shop, and I was ignored by an elderly gentleman – not deliberately, I think he just couldn’t grasp the concept of a lady being in charge when he was informed by the shop staff.

“In this modern world, and especially in brewing, there are more women in junior and senior roles. If anything, I believe being a women is now helping me in my career path. There are more women in senior and management roles these days and I believe this has its advantages as women can manage differently to men.

“I would still say the industry is more male dominated, but this has shifted significantly in the past few years. The industry had become less industrial and more like a production environment, crafting a product, which probably appeals more to women.”

Michelle Williams, creative director at marketing firm Creative Sponge in Norwich

It was only when I was asked to appraise student portfolios at the recent DMA Big Book Crit in Norwich that it truly dawned on me that I was one of the few – very few – senior female creatives in a room full of, no doubt very talented, but still very male peers. As a woman working in the creative industry I always knew I was in a minority and I understand why, particularly if you’re also trying to hold down the most important job in the world: being a mum.

It’s a balancing act, a tough one, but I’ve always been up for a challenge.

Helen Cavill, manufacturing engineer at TTP Labtech near Royston and former engineer at M&H Plastics in Beccles. Picture: TTP LabtechHelen Cavill, manufacturing engineer at TTP Labtech near Royston and former engineer at M&H Plastics in Beccles. Picture: TTP Labtech

Fortunately, I also had the support of a very enlightened senior management team at Creative Sponge who were fully supportive while I had children, encouraging me to return to the fray and continue my journey up the career ladder. Without that support and understanding, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.

Helen Cavill, manufacturing engineer at TTP Labtech in Royston and former engineer at M&H Plastics in Beccles

As a manufacturing engineer, I am frequently involved in resolving technical problems when production deadlines are at stake.

I find that as a woman, I am naturally quite emotionally intelligent and can often diffuse these pressurised situations.

Being a female in a male-dominated industry can also be an advantage because being unique helps to get you remembered, so I find networking relatively easy and quickly build up good contacts.

But I get frustrated at the false stereotypes regarding engineering. Some people think I can’t be a good engineer because I don’t look like I could fix a car, but engineering isn’t about being a car mechanic – it’s using maths and science to solve real world problems, from designing earthquake-proof buildings to manufacturing machines that can run DNA sequencing. As wider society understands that message, the gender balance within engineering should begin to improve.

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