Interview with Barbara Stephens, 13 May 2021
Level: Category
Sound Archive
Level: Fonds
Level: Series
Communicating Connections
Scope and Content:
Barbara Stephens OBE [BS] interviewed by Laura Owen [LO] about joining the Marconi Company as an apprentice in 1969, her career in engineering, and her gender and disability activism. LO and BS discuss sexism, disability discrimination/ableism, and equal opportunities. Recorded remotely via Squadcast.

Recording note: audio file cuts out at certain points – see transcript for details.

[00:00:00] BS comments that she was born in Bedford. Talks about growing up and attending Colchester County High School for Girls; felt that the school educated girls to become wives rather than have a career of their own. Got a place to read History and Politics at the University of Kent, but didn’t want to do this (or another option, becoming a linguist secretary). Recalls reading an article about apprenticeships sponsored by the Engineering Industry Training Board a year before she left school. Notes that it didn’t mention it was only for boys.

[00:05:00] Comments that gender wasn’t an issue in her family. Mentions that her mother studied the equivalent of a PGCE at university in 1964, her grandfather drove the Flying Scotsman, and her uncle was an engineer. Describes writing to six companies that took on apprentices: three didn’t reply; the Post Office British Telecommunications [later BT] said that she couldn’t become an apprentice because she would need to climb telegraph poles; and British Aerospace said they didn’t employ women in a technical capacity. Only Marconi invited her for an interview. Recalls that her school was horrified when she told them she would be taking up the apprenticeship.

[00:08:47] Started her apprenticeship on 6 September 1969, with 199 boys; the first female apprentice since 1945. Describes how her first year was spent learning basic skills, including turning, milling, welding, draughtsmanship, alongside time at college. Comments that female apprentices previously went into design or research; was put in the drawing office with other engineers. No women on the shop floor in 20 years. In her final year she was placed there in production engineering. Awarded Apprentice of the Year at the end of her apprenticeship, with more girls coming up the ranks behind her.

[00:15:05] Worked as a production engineer from 1973 to 1977; enjoyed it. Describes how Lord Arnold Weinstock [chief executive of GEC] was concerned that talent was being lost within Marconi and going to other companies, and a call was put out for people who wanted to fulfil their potential. Selected to be interviewed by Lord Weinstock and put in a supervisory role on the shop floor. After six or seven months moved to the Specialised Components Division at Billericay. Comments that this was not successful due to concerns about her gender and sexism; suspended by her superior.

[00:21:59] Recalls going to a meeting of the Chelmsford Engineering Society where she knew that Tom Mayer, the Managing Director of Communications, and Baroness Beryl Platt of Writtle, her mentor, would be there. BS said that her superior had not informed HR that she had been suspended, and was told to go to New Street the following week.

[00:24:00] Comments that she got married in 1970; husband an apprentice at RHP who she had known in Colchester. Decided that she didn’t want to be a mother and continued her career.

[00:25:00] Describes moving into sales management after being suspended. Happy there for five years until the manager who suspended her was appointed to become her manager again. After saying she would resign, her boss made sure HR didn’t appoint the previous manager again.

[00:27:50] Describes a large project Marconi worked on to upgrade the telephone system across the country; from 24 channels, PCM, to 36, increasing the capacity. BS took over production control, but applied for a transfer after a few months to the Radio Systems Division, to project manage the installation of communications equipment in the ships in the Dutch fleet. Promoted to project controller in 1986. Recalls working on projects in Libya and Saudi Arabia where she had to hide her gender. Comments on risks working around the world and the safety of engineers.

[00:38:00] Explains that she was due for a promotion in 1987, but Andrew Glasgow told her she would not be able to progress at Marconi, so left the company.

[00:40:00] Recalls being interviewed at the Ford Research Centre in Dunton, but felt there was no career progression. Saw another job with the National Economic Development Office (NEDO) as part of the civil service; although it required a degree, Beryl Platt [then chair of NEDO] became her referee and she was offered the job in 1987. The job then disappeared due to government changes and she went back to Marconi’s until February 1988, when she took a similar job in London.

[00:45:30] States that she is grateful for her time at Marconi; didn’t care about gender or age. Comments that the company was beginning to change when she left. Recalls that she was often used in promotional material; asked to lead a project in 1984 publicising Marconi’s participation in Women in Science and Engineering Year (WISE ‘84); interviewed on national television.

[00:49:00] Recalls that NEDO sponsored her to do an MBA in Engineering Management. Moved north in 1993 to become Chief Executive of the Local Economic Development Agency, which aimed to develop employment after the decline of industry in the late 1980s and 1990s. Moved on to manage the Electoral Commission in 2002 and then to the Open University. Describes how Marconi gave her the foundation to build her career.

[00:53:52] LO asks about camaraderie at Marconi. BS comments that there was camaraderie, and that those at Marconi Communications on the New Street site regarded themselves as the ‘real’ Marconi. Mentions Space and Defence Centre Systems in Portsmouth.

[00:56:30] Discusses the decline of Marconi. Recalls taking part in a project analysing the UK electronics industry; found that it was resting on its laurels and needed to catch up with the move from hardware to software. Comments that Plessey was the same as GEC. Failure at the top of the company, not the bottom.

[01:01:00] Comments that the failure of Marconi didn’t start with mass redundancies: too many sites in the Chelmsford area, too late in closing some down; senior figures had been there a long time, and weren’t replaced when they retired. Mentions that Chelmsford was becoming a commuter town.

[01:05:10] LO asks about growing up in a gender-neutral household. BS talks about her working-class background and dislike of her all-girls school; didn’t relate to the things the other girls talked about.

[01:10:20] Comments that going from her school to being the only woman at Marconi was a huge shock. Talks about her husband’s support and being together since she was 17. LO asks about her decision not to have children. BS notes that she adopted her name without ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’ in front of it. Comments on facing sexism and disability discrimination.

[01:13:44] Comments that she experienced discrimination her whole life in the form of sexism. Became involved in campaigning for equal opportunities legislation. Recalls holding an all-night party when 1973 legislation passed. Talks about people not understanding her family dynamic. Mentions being a board member for the Higher Education Funding Council for England and chairing the Committee on Disability Discrimination.

[01:17:31] Describes a motorbike accident she had in July 1990, the aftermath in hospital, and the discrimination she faced afterwards.

[01:26:28] LO asks about specific examples of discrimination. BS talks about job interviews. Describes her aspiration to change attitudes and her successes in doing so.

[01:34:18] LO asks about her experiences with discrimination and equal opportunities at Marconi. BS recalls one manager who wrote mildly pornographic content for a magazine, which ended up on her desk; took it to his manager and complained. Comments that this was rare at Marconi; most colleagues good and accepting.

[01:40:00] States that Marconi were ahead of their time. Comments that the Women’s Engineering Society used to make an award for the company with the worst record on equal opportunities; won by Ford won on several occasions. Reflects on her positive experience at Marconi.
Dates of Creation:
13 May 2021
1 hour 44 minutes 9 seconds
Creator Name:
Laura Owen, interviewer
Archivist Note:
Custodial History:
Recorded for the Communicating Connections project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF).
Copyright transferred to ESVA
Physical Characteristics:
1 MP3 file
Related Unit of Description:
For a transcript of this recording, see SA 13/8/3/3
Dates of Description:
6 June 2022
Not Available:
Essex Sound and Video Archive: use digital copy available on Soundcloud