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'Civil engineer' Venables scoops second honour

ICE news

ICE VICE president and environmental consultant Jean Venables earlier this month received an OBE from the Queen for services to flood defence .

She is clear evidence that women can crash through the glass ceiling unscathed and occupy the highest positions in engineering companies.

But Venables says: 'I've never thought of myself as a female engineer; always a civil engineer'.

She has spent the last 20 years influencing and implementing flood defence policy and was chair of the Thames region flood defence committee for nine years until last year.

During this time, Venables has also brought up two sons and started up her own civil engineering consultancy.

The OBE comes seven years after Venables' MBE for services to civil engineering.

'I accepted the OBE on behalf of the flood defence committee and staff - the OBE is often referred to as Other Bodies' Efforts, ' says a modest Venables. The committee maintains she received the honour for being the Official (Thames) Barrier Enthusiast.

Venables was accompanied by her sons' nanny when she picked up her OBE. She believes that her successful career has been largely down to the fact that she could rely on good childcare when she returned to work.

'You need that kind of support to be able to go out and work confidently, ' she says.

Venables graduated from Imperial College in 1969 -'the only female civil engineer graduate that year'.

One of her first experiences of working in a male-dominated field came when she was assistant resident engineer. But one day, she was ordered to leave the site.

'I was told that miners were due to arrive for some tunnelling work, and that they 'didn't work with women', ' says Venables.

Sexist attitudes only spurred Venables on to stand her ground.

Eventually, the miners came to accept her and value her as a site engineer.

She adds that having a good sense of humour also helped her get through other similar trying situations.

Venables has seen her industry go through many changes.

She explains that her field of flood defence started life in land drainage with the emphasis on retaining as much land as possible for agriculture.

'It then evolved into flood defence which became more concerned with protecting urban areas, but the shift now is towards flood risk management.'

The move towards proactive rather than reactive engineering reflects the advances made in computer modelling, understanding river behaviour and flood forecasting, she adds.

Venables is also immensely proud of being the first engineer (and woman) in the country to head up any regional flood defence committee - the post was previously held by farmers or landowners.

'But the biggest change is how we now make the public more aware of flooding and acknowledge that flood defences can be over-

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