As MD of O’Donovan Waste Disposal, Jacqueline is one of the waste and construction sectors’ most passionate pioneers of employee training, industry best practice and road safety. Under her steer, the award-winning family-run business has gone from strength to strength with 185 employees and operating the largest, independent, direct-vision waste fleet of 100 lorries in London. Jacqueline is recognised as an innovator and a leading force in the industry and is a keen advocate of sustainable operations as well as encouraging diversity and inclusion in the sector. She has received numerous accolades for her work and holds a number of respected fellowships and affiliations with professional organisations and bodies in the sector. Her awards include PwC Private Businesswoman of the Year and the Building Award for Female Leadership, as well as the Women’s Economic Forum naming her as their Woman of the Decade in Enterprise and Leadership.

Earlier this month, we had the opportunity to sit down with Jackie and pick her brain on what it’s like being a woman in the industry.

Tell us about your personal experience and point of view as a woman in the construction industry. How did you get into construction and have you faced any challenges along the way?

According to the Chartered Institute of Building, women make up around 13% of construction sector workers, a number that has remained stagnant for two decades. The statistic also makes the industry look better than it actually is, when you consider only around 1-2% of women are working ‘on-site’ – a low, yet unsurprising number. I entered the industry at a young age, having joined the company at just 17.

My father founded the company in 1959 and had built up a very successful business when he died suddenly in 1985 at the young age of 51. We, as a family were totally in shock, so it was a case of dropping everything and all getting on with it. My three siblings and I came together to work to keep the company going – it was certainly a challenging time for all four of us. The first task we had to do was to downsize the company to make it more manageable for us as we were so young and inexperienced in business at the time.

For me, entering an industry that was, and still is, male-dominated was not without its challenges. Being both female and young, I was judged daily. Clients would often ring in and ask to speak to a man but I never let things like that bother me. The biggest hurdle was not being taken seriously, especially by banks. I learnt to adapt quickly and demonstrate that I didn’t just deserve to be there, but that I had the skills and knowledge to lead. As time passed, we all worked hard and naturally found our own roles and what we were best at, and my passion for business and leadership came to the fore.

By age 19, I became Managing Director and I have never looked back. Now, with over 35 years’ experience at O’Donovan, there have been a number of lessons that I have learnt from being a female director in a male dominated industry, but the standout one is to never underestimate my ability. As the company grew, my responsibilities grew too.

I began to challenge myself to look beyond the business and to consider how to improve the industry as a whole. As the waste and construction sector began to evolve, I was passionate that a real leap forward could be made in terms of improving reputation and safety and I became heavily involved in promoting road safety for construction vehicles and encouraging best practice. This has seen me collaborate with various organisations and government initiatives and bodies, resulting in my contribution to improvements on the design of innovative lorries and safety features which are changing the face of transport policies across the UK, as well as being the Vice-Chair of the Department for Transport’s ‘Year of Diversity’.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in the industry?

When you make up such a small proportion of the workforce in the industry, the most important first step is to have confidence in yourself and your abilities. So many women suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ and feel intimidated but the reality is we are just as knowledgeable and capable. It is important to build strong relationships and dialogue both above and below you. Communication is the key and in particular, listening. The knowledge you pick up will be invaluable so ask questions and learn from every person. One of my personal mottos is ‘every day is an education’.

How do you think we can bridge the skills gap and entice more women into the industry?

To entice more women, the initial thing that needs to be done is for the industry to actually present itself as an option in the first place! There needs to be more collaboration between the industry and the second level education and training sector to promote itself as a viable career choice to young women. There should be more of a focus on incentives and industry related apprenticeships to encourage potential talent.

At the moment, more needs to be done to target people from 18 onwards in order to harness their interest. The seeds need to be planted earlier and a major shift is needed at school level. I don’t think the industry is presented as an option to children between the ages of 12 and 16, and the perception is that careers in construction would be bricklayer, plasterer or something similar and not somewhere that you can have a professional career with good growth and progression, whilst being female!

Industry / government interaction with schools and colleges is needed so that the general perceptions of the construction industry as a male-only sector is challenged and instead, gender equality is communicated and promoted. We as female-leaders also need to step up and offer our time and experience to get out and talk to young people, and present ourselves as ‘live’ case-studies and show the options available.

Lastly, what do you think lies ahead for the industry? Any predictions?

There has been a lot of negativity about the industry in the press recently and Brexit has a lot to answer for in terms of uncertainty and projects being put on hold, whilst the country waited to see what would happen. The new immigration rules and points system coming into effect in 2021 will have a huge impact on the sector, with the proposed points system effectively cutting off access to unskilled labour. We are already struggling with attracting workers and the inability to appeal to new talent, so Government will need to really step up to support the sector. I think innovation will play a key part in the waste industry and I see robotics and artificial intelligence becoming a necessary option in the waste processing chain due to lack of labour options.

I also think compliance and procurement needs to join up as the two roles have different priorities. Procurement staff need to be aware of company’s credentials when it comes to health and safety and sustainability.