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Defying the poisoned flute


Michelle McDowell is thriving in a male-dominated workplace

Michelle McDowell is thriving in a male-dominated workplace

Sean Dempsey

Michelle McDowell is thriving in a male-dominated workplace

It is not so much a poisoned chalice as a poisoned flute glass. Being named Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year might be the most sparkling accolade for women in industry, but all too often the fizz goes flat, with recipients resigning soon after they have been honoured.

Carolyn McCall resigned as director of Tesco two days after winning the award in 2008, while Vivienne Cox, who was honoured in 2006, stepped down as head of BP's alternative energy unit when it closed its London office last year.

Michelle McDowell, 47, from Coleraine, the engineer named this year's winner, had no qualms over her future.

She was the driving force behind the £70m redevelopment of the Royal Albert Hall and also worked on the revamp of Wimbledon's All England Club.

Ms McDowell, chair of civil and structural engineering at the design firm BDP, said: “It's a huge personal honour and I hope it will raise the profile of engineering.”

She has thrived in the male-dominated industry, and said she had become used to being surrounded by men.

“It can feel intimidating, as if you don't belong,” she said. “At the same time, it makes you memorable and sets you apart. Things are improving now with more women coming into the industry, but it's a slow process.”

The most disquieting moments were walking into a “sea of male faces” at industry events, she said.

Ms McDowell grew up in the village of Garvagh, near Coleraine in Northern Ireland.

She met her partner, Jason Fox, 49, a systems director for the information technology company DDS, in her first week at Bristol University.

“He was studying English and I was studying engineering,” she remembers.

“I think he helped me to develop my creative side. I couldn't be where I am without him, he's a wonderful sounding board.”

The secrets of her success include being very well organised, she said.

“I prioritise, what's important gets done. I don't panic under pressure, it's hard to faze me.”

While some people think “women only” awards are sexist, Ms McDowell believes they will remain important until there are an equal number of men and women in senior boardroom positions.

Her hopes for the future include continuing to grow the company; she currently manages a team of 400 people. She also wants to continue her work for the industry, improving the lot of engineers.

“The image of engineering is totally outdated,” she said. “I work in a design studio alongside architects, sketching and coming up with ideas.”

Her future looks bright — provided she can keep the curse of Clicquot at bay.

Belfast Telegraph