Thursday, 21 October 2021

Honours for scientist & equality champion

A WOMAN who has campaigned for equality for women in the boardroom and a scientist who left university

A WOMAN who has campaigned for equality for women in the boardroom and a scientist who left university not knowing what he wanted to do were recognised in the New Year’s honours.

Denise Wilson, from Maidensgrove, received an OBE  for services to women and equality.

She is chief executive of the Lord Davies Steering Group, which was set up in 2011 with the aim of doubling the number of female directors in FTSE 100 companies.

Ms Wilson, who is married to Alan White and has two children, Michael, 21, and Jamie, 20, was a founder member of the group and became chief executive in 2013.

She found out about her honour about a month ago.



She said: “I had been working from home and was then going into London. As I was rushing out, I picked the post out of the letterbox and put it in my bag as I was driving to Twyford to get the train.

“I got the letters out when I was on the train and saw one from the Cabinet Office. It was rather a funny experience and I was just sitting there smiling to myself.”

Ms Wilson worked in financial services before moving into the oil and gas industry and has worked for British Gas, the BG Group and the National Grid.

She became the most senior female member of staff at the National Grid and was also its first female director when it was still known as Transco.

She said: “It’s quite a tough, male-dominated industry. I was really disappointed we did not have more females at the top.

“I set up a women’s network at the National Grid 15 years ago. It was about creating visibility and giving confidence to women and I chaired it.”

When the Lord Davies Steering Group was set up in 2011 it recommended doubling the number of women in FTSE 100 companies from 11 per cent to 22 per cent.

Ms Wilson said: “Now it is 26 per cent. The percentage goes up every time we measure it.

“In terms of FTSE 350 companies, there are 550 new women on boards — that’s a lot of women.

“When I was coming up I was watching all my female role models leaving because they could not get the jobs in the positions they wanted.

“I wanted to make a difference to the women coming after me. That was my aim — to give them a better chance of getting to the top table.

“There are very, very capable women in the UK and it’s distressing that they are giving up to go and do something else.”

Ms Wilson, who is now a director at the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group and chairwoman of the board of the Friends of the Royal Academy of Arts, thanked her family for their support.

She added: “My husband and two children have supported me in my working life and supported both my emotional and physical wellbeing.”

Professor John Sumpter, 63, from Southend, near Henley, received an OBE for services to the science of ecotoxicology in the aquatic environment.

He led pioneering research into the effect of household chemicals on fish, discovering that chemicals washed into the River Thames were causing male fish to become feminised.

This work has been followed up by many other countries.

Prof Sumpter, who is head of the institute for the environment at Brunel University in London, grew up near Chichester, West Sussex.

He studied marine zoology at Bangor University in Wales, graduating in 1973. He was at a graduation party when he was offered the chance to stay on and do a PhD.

Prof Sumpter said: “Marine zoology is running around the seashore looking at things in rock pools, which is good fun but there are no jobs.

“Like a lot of people of that generation, I didn’t have any sort of plan when I graduated but then I was offered the chance to do a PhD.

“This got me on to the subject of hormones in fish and whether they have the same hormones as us. It was a failure because I wasn’t able to purify the hormones but I learnt a lot.”

After completing his PhD, he secured a lecturer’s job at Brunel in 1978. He said: “My father asked me when I was going to get a proper job as he didn’t consider working at the university a proper job!”

He has stayed at the university ever since.

“I never remember thinking it was time for a change,” said Prof Sumpter. “It’s a nice job and a good place to work and I was slowly promoted. I wouldn’t have stayed in the same job for 37 years if it wasn’t extremely interesting.

“To begin with most of my teaching was human physiology, which I knew nothing about. Back then the university had 5,000 students and 99 per cent came from the UK. Now it has more than 15,000 and 35 per cent are from overseas.

“It’s an extremely good job — there are no fixed hours, so you have a tremendous amount of freedom.”

It was this freedom that allowed Prof Sumpter to begin his research into  ecotoxicology.

He had to come up with ideas and raise the money for research through government grants and donations from companies.

He estimated that he had raised about £10million during his career, most of which has gone on paying researchers.

Prof Sumpter said: “I started off working in fish hormones again but for the last 15 or 20 years I’ve been interested in the chemicals we use which end up in rivers and what they do to fish. I’ve done lots of work on fish in British rivers being feminised by chemicals.

“We found them first and other countries have looked into it since.”

Prof Sumpter now works with researchers in other countries, including Japan and Spain.

In 2011 his research helped Brunel win the Queen’s Anniversary Award for Higher Education, which was presented by the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Prof Sumpter is an adviser to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on chemicals policy and member of the editorial advisory board of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

He also volunteers in an annual toad collection near his home, where the animals are rounded up and moved to stop them being hit by traffic. He has lived in Southend with his wife Helen, a garden designer, since 1998.

Prof Sumpter said he was looking forward to being presented with his OBE at St James’s Palace later this year.

He said: “The envelope from the Cabinet Office arrived in November and my wife spent the whole day mulling over what it was. I had no idea at all — it was a surprise.

“We tried to figure out who put me forward. I think it was a group of people but they kept it completely quiet. I’d like to thank them.

“You are told you must keep it confidential, which my wife and I did. We didn’t tell anyone, including our mothers and sisters.

“I’m not really an establishment person but I’m not anti-establishment either and for someone who is nearly 90, the Queen is quite impressive.”



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