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What it means being a female director in the construction industry

In the 1980s, being a woman running a business was enough of a challenge in itself, but the fact that I was a woman and operating in construction was a complete anomaly.
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I hadn’t originally planned on a career in the construction waste industry, but when my father died unexpectedly in 1985, I, along with my siblings had to step up to continue the legacy he had created – I was only 17 years old. 

Entering an industry that was, and still is in some areas, predominately male at a young age was not without its difficulties, but I quickly learnt to adapt and demonstrate that I didn’t just deserve to be there, but that I could flourish. I often found that I wasn’t taken seriously, with many clients demanding to speak to a male senior member of staff whenever I answered the phone. Rather than let it affect me, I began handing phone calls to one of the staff members I had personally trained, confident that I was delegating effectively.

When starting out, many of the men in the company presumed I wasn’t savvy about certain regulations or equipment. I would ultimately surprise them with my knowledge of safe working practices, which I have strived to enforce during my time here. A key achievement for me was when I took over the safety and training of O’Donovan’s HGV drivers, even creating my own driver Certificate of Professional Competence course –one of the first to be tailored specifically to the exact training needs of drivers working across the waste industry. 

When you make up such a small proportion of the workforce, the most important first step is to observe how the company operates – not just the professional working practices but the relationships and dialogue between team members, and how you can be involved in that. You can also learn a lot by trying out different roles – for instance even if you enter at a managerial level, I would suggest spending a day with the contact centre or sales team and immersing yourself in the environment. Ask questions about their role and understand their daily tasks. 

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As the company grew, I experienced every role across the business, which has ultimately helped me be a stronger leader by understanding every single member of the team. Your education doesn’t have to stop at your own company, by the way. I try and learn something from everyone I interact with, whether it be other Managing Directors or other businesses – gaining a well-rounded insight into your industry will always stand you in good stead. 

I strongly believe that women should support each other and help others to achieve their passions. My management team alone comprises of a female compliance director, operations director, executive assistant and business development manager to name a few. But I didn’t hire them for gender diversity’s sake – they are talented and quite brilliant at their respective jobs. When I entered the business, the waste industry was becoming increasingly competitive, and I had to steer O’Donovan through two recessions, whilst avoiding making a single member of staff redundant and continuing to increase turnover. 

Balancing this, along with my own family and employee’s finances, I came out the other side in the knowledge that I was more than capable of being a successful female director in a male dominated industry.

Jacqueline O’Donovan is managing director of O’Donovan Waste Disposal.

Concerned with issues surrounding gender diversity in business? Don’t miss the Real Business First Women programme:

Drawing on years of the First Women movement and the phenomenal network of pioneering women the Awards has created, this programme features The First Women Awards and The First Women Summit  designed to educate, mentor and inspire women in all levels of business.

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