Interview – Juliette Stacey

When opportunity knocks…

With a leading senior role in a male-dominated industry, Juliette Stacey, CEO of global construction and engineering company Mabey, is in a unique position. Tamsin Napier- Munn of The Business Magazine met with her to discuss the challenges of her career journey to date on what, as a woman, is inevitably a lonely road at times.

Juliette Stacey of Mabey

Her journey?  Stacey decided early on that to progress she needed to qualify as a chartered accountant.  Maths was never her strongest suit and she struggled in her studies, but she qualified and went on from there. If a position became too comfortable, she pushed herself out of her comfort zone and moved onto the next level. 

This drive soon got her a position in one of the big-six firms, and from there she joined a global property group where she worked her way up to finance director in 2000. Now CEO of Mabey, Stacey leads the Group through its provision of engineering solutions to construction markets around the world.

So yes, she has ambition; she is tenacious; she is courageous and she is extremely successful. But while all highly admirable, these are not gender-specific qualities.

So is the glass ceiling still a reality?

“Here I’m one of three executive directors,” said Stacey, “and one of the others is a woman. Kate is exactly the person to set an example to other women – she is brilliant in her own right and brings expertise and insights. Now, if she were a man, would it be any different? I really struggle to think so.

“A business does need to create a working environment that is comfortable for everyone.  But with this in place, if the myth continues to exist that ‘it’s a man’s world and not welcoming enough’, that has to be dispelled.”

A decade of progress

“Attitudes to women in business have changed dramatically, even in the past 10-15 years,” said Stacey. “Early in my career there were plenty of comments directed at women in business – including how they looked. And women then were far more likely to say ‘just let it go’.

“Over the years I’ve also seen many women in meetings lacking confidence because they’re addressing an audience of men and feeling they’re being judged.”

Commenting on her role in 2000 on the board of a property group, she said: “Initially I was a token woman – there was a time when I felt I was used as the proof that the organisation and even the sector were changing.  We couldn’t be criticised because ‘look we’ve got Juliette on the board’, and the fact that there were 18 men on the board was overlooked.

“When I joined Mabey Group, I guess I expected to go into a depot and for them to say, ‘what’s she doing here?’ But I haven’t seen that at all.”

There has been a vast change in attitudes and opportunities

“There is a huge need for engineering in this country and at Mabey we employ a significant proportion of female engineers.  This is largely possible because we offer a high degree of flexibility – both in terms of workplace and hours.

“This industry involves shifting great big hunks of metal, but there is nothing stopping women from coming into it – other than whether they are personally attracted to the type of job.”

Strength in diversity

Stacey feels that in today’s more-accepting business world, there is still a lack of understanding, but that this is not about gender per se, it’s about diversity, and the strength that can be harnessed from different traits.

We asked Stacey what she believes to be the key difference between her and another male board director.  She said: “In my experience over 25 years, it would be that I am a ‘measured’ risk taker.  If a decision is black and white I won’t hesitate; but how many situations are? I would rather have thought through the ramifications, than rush an important decision. I do think this approach is more of a female characteristic.”

Another difference is that women are more comfortable displaying emotional intelligence. “When a workforce realises you genuinely care, they have faith in the organisation, and when you’ve got that – whether they are men or women, apprentices or board directors – then suddenly there is this switching on of mutual respect and you become quite powerful as a business.

“This might be a maternal thing and it can also work against you.  I remember a time when someone said, ‘you need to let go of that now because if you don’t stop looking after them, they’ll never learn to breath on their own’. A valid point, women are more likely to need to learn when to step back and when to let go.”

So why the gender gap?

“In some industries the glass ceiling is still a real issue, but even where there is a more balanced working environment, there is a lot that women can do for themselves.  Perhaps the most important is having the courage and confidence to grab opportunities.  Men are more likely to put themselves forward for a role when they have 60% of the skillset, where women want to see they have the full 100%.

“So my advice would be ‘don’t wait until the lights turn green’. If you wait until you’re ready, nothing will happen.”