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leading lady

Jean Venables becomes the 144th president of the ICE next week and the first ever woman to hold the office. Antony Oliver reports on a milestone in civil engineering history and hears how she intends to use her platform to tackle climate change.

To describe next week’s presidential address as a moment in civil engineering history is no overstatement. Jean Venables'
election as President of the ICE will mark a real point of progress for the profession. And let us be honest – it is about time too. After all, it has taken 190 years to see a woman in the role.

So is this the long awaited, monumental step demonstrating that the ICE not only embraces women but also actively seeks to help them break through the ever-present glass ceiling? "You have to put it into context," she says with a degree of modesty. "I was the twelfth woman to become (an ICE) Member and the twelfth woman Fellow – as such it is not surprising that there hasn’t been a woman president so far. But there has got to be another one very soon."

The last point she makes with the kind of passion, conviction and determination that has driven her to the top of a hugely male dominated career and profession. She got where she is through professional competence, hard work and dedication but also with the ability to persuade and build consensus. It is also a statement born out of a realisation that, in terms of women’s roles across the whole UK workforce, times have moved on in the Institution. "It’s the beginning of the future," she says. "It was only 90 years ago that women got the vote. The sex discrimination act came in the 1970s and it has actually changed the attitude, the expectation of society from 'you will stop working when you are married' to an era where it was okay for women to work after they got married."

She says social attitudes have continued to change and adds that when she started work it was still "slightly suspect" to be a working mother with much real doubt about whether it was possible. "Now it’s an expectation," she points out. Of course a number of other engineering professions have also recently had their first ever female presidents – the Institution of Structural Engineers, the Chartered Institute of Building and the Institute of Physics, for example. This fact is, she adds, perhaps unsurprising given the time of these social changes. "People are now coming through from the generation where our expectation was 'yes we can do that' and we are now in the position where we are old enough to become president," she explains. "It is where social change has brought us to and it’s happened sooner in some careers."

So celebrating and supporting the drive to encourage more women into the profession will be important to Venables next year. But she insists that the current female under-representation is just one part of a much bigger diversity picture. "We have to recruit from the whole pool to get the best talent." she says. "If you are looking at diversity then you are not just looking at the proportion of women, but also the proportion of ethnic minorities, disabled and the whole diversity agenda."

Important though that is, it will not be Venables' main agenda for her year. Instead she will focus her main efforts on the issue that she describes as simply "the biggest risk that we face" – namely tackling the global threat from climate change. It is perhaps an unsurprising choice since mitigation of human impact on the natural environment – and the adaptations required to meet the new world being created as a result – have been at the heart of her career since she first entered the profession as an undergraduate engineer at Imperial College London in 1966.

The final year course in public health and the MSc that followed, she says, lit her passion for what later became known as "the environment" which has shaped her career, and in many ways her life, ever since.

Together with her husband Roger, with whom she formed consultancy Crane Environmental in 1989, Venables has been driving what has more recently morphed into the sustainability agenda for nearly 40 years. In fact in the early 1970s, when on the Association of London Graduates and Students (ALGS) committee, she and Roger
organised a conference about finite resources. This was clearly the kick-start to the passion which now underpins her presidential plans. And regardless of the credit crunch, now is the time to invest in tackling climate change, she says and to point out that engineers can deliver the solutions to climate change. "Now, because we can’t leave it any later," she explains. "Now, because if we are to meet our targets in 2050 what we are building now is actually going to dictate what greenhouse gases are emitted from the building and infrastructure." She adds: "We have got to engender the sense of urgency and importance that the recent banking crisis has had.

This crisis grabbed the attention of government and the world – we need to somehow get climate change to have that same degree of urgency so that people take action." The recently announced government department for energy and climate change is, she insists, a great step forward and the latest CO2 reduction targets announced by secretary of state Ed Miliband of 80% by 2050 are, she adds, very bold. "We have got to take action now even though we may not know the full story," she explains. "There is no one big fix – all of us have to think very carefully. We have got to start designing infrastructure now either to be drastically different or to be capable of adaptation."

This unshakeable belief that science and engineering has the answers has been core to Venables’ career right from the moment she first starting breaking down barriers to get into the subject at school. "I went to an all girls grammar school in Dover and had to do physics at the local boys’ school because they didn’t do it at my school," she explains. "When I went back and said I was going to do civil engineering they said girls don’t do civil engineering. It wasn’t until I went to university that I discovered they were right!"

At Imperial College London in 1966 Venables was one of just two women in the first year. She loved the subject, course and profession, immersing herself in the workings of the Institution and ALGS right
from the start. Her first job in public health engineering was with the Greater London Council in, as she describes it, the "age of the municipal engineer" before utility privatisation.

There she worked on the Thames Barrier project under the late Ray Horner, chief construction engineer and "father of the Barrier". At the end of the project Venables decided to change tack and went to lecture at Kingston University "because I hadn’t done it before" – a post she held until launching full time into consultancy with Roger in 1989.

Crane Environmental has been the hub of a phenomenal personal and professional partnership ever since. And along the way they have also combined work with a successful family life – although neither of their sons, Simon and Hugh, followed them into engineering. The partnership will continue in Venables’ presidential year as she will be accompanied by Roger on all of her UK region and overseas visits – with Roger no doubt taking the opportunity to spread the sustainability message via the CEEQUAL awards programme, which he now runs in partnership with the ICE.

The overseas programme starts in November with a conference and public lecture in New Zealand and will then take in China and Hong Kong in January, Canada in May and finally India in September. Throughout the year there will be clear links with water and flooding as she delivers the climate change message, not least since she currently chairs the industry liaison panel of the Thames 2100 project to assess flood risk in the Thames Estuary over the next century. Venables also runs the Association of Drainage Authorities – a role that she says "always brings a smile to people’s faces". In truth it cuts to the heart of her career and expertise in flood risk management and infrastructure planning. "Significant areas of the UK have land that has to be actively managed every day and a lot of infrastructure there that has to be protected [from the risk of flooding]," she explains. “Last summer was a demonstration of what can happen. We have to build more resilience into our infrastructure so that we can recover more quickly when flooding occurs."

Recent government announcements, increasing spending on flood defences to £800M a year in 2010 are, she says, a start but are by no means the solution. "You can always spend more – it is an increase but it doesn’t contain anything for inflation and so in effect it is not very far off flat cash. With construction inflation where it is, it is not as high an increase as you might think."

Building regulations must also be changed, she adds, to ensure that houses in flood risk zones are appropriately built and appropriately repaired following flood damage. "At the moment [insurers] put back like for like which to my mind is not a sensible use of resources," she says with no small measure of professional frustration born out of the intimate knowledge of the devastation that flooding causes to lives. But all this will be put somewhat on hold next year as she immerses herself in the affairs of the ICE and the office of the president - the culmination for her of what will have been a four year commitment to the presidential team.

It is fair to say that Venables has been something of a loyal servant to the ICE over the last 40 years, starting as a "We have got to start designing infrastructure now either to be drastically different or to be capable of adaptation." 2003 have seen her work on a variety of committees including the Disciplinary Board, the Investigating Panel, the Ethics Committee and the Waste Management Working Party on Construction Waste. Venables was also on the ICE committee that led to the foundation of New Civil Engineer in 1972 and, as such, readers today have much to thank her for. "I fought for your editorial freedom and have had to defend it on many occasions in Council," she jokes. "Publications at the time were being edited by a committee. We wanted to change what Sidney Lenssen (New Civil Engineer founding editor) defined as a 'receiving habit' to a 'reading habit'. It was a very
big step for the Institution to take at the time."

She has also been involved with the ICE Benevolent Fund for over 30 years and serves as the Institution’s representative on the Court of Imperial College London. It is no surprise therefore, that she was awarded the Garth Watson Medal in 2001 for services to the Institution. And clearly, as President, she will be no stranger to the procedural and consensus seeking nature of the job but says that outgoing president David Orr has been a good role model in terms of running Council. "I have never ever found it necessary [to bang the table] but I do chair very firmly," she explains. "I do enjoy the challenge of getting people to a consensus. There’s a fine line between keeping things moving and letting people have their say."

Her plan is to use her platform as ICE President – and perhaps even leveraging the fact of being the first ever woman in the role – to champion engineering as the solution to not only the climate change challenges we face but also the more recent difficulties of economic downturn. Three messages to get over to government are, she says, around understanding risk better, the need to put climate change at the heart of policy and the value of placing engineers at the heart of policy making – not least with appointing a chief engineer.

"Investment in public infrastructure is a way of working our way out of this situation – the important thing is what we spend our money on and how do we decide which projects to go ahead with," she explains. "For years we have relied on past investment – I don’t think that we maintained or upgraded our transport systems, our water systems our drainage systems significantly. We must do so."

Nuclear power: "I think that nuclear power has to be part of the mix – I cannot see how we can get a carbon reduction without using nuclear power as part of our energy source. We have to look very quickly at where our power is coming from and we may have to look at building other power stations [which come on stream more quickly]."

Road pricing: "I think that we are getting complicated when things shouldn’t be. If you tax fuel then people pay according to the mileage that they do. That would limit the mileage. But I can see that if you are actually trying to distribute where people drive then road pricing has a role to play."

Tidal power: "I wouldn’t rule it out but I think that we ought to be looking at ways of abstracting the energy without necessarily putting in a barrage. I think that we should build at least half a dozen estuary-derived energy sources and strike the balance between abstracting energy and cutting off the tide into the estuary and therefore changing the environment."

Airport expansion: "Air traffic has got to be part of the transport mix but I think that we ought to be linking our airports together with decent railways so that they can act as a set of airports rather than a lot of isolated ones."

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