Open Eye: First woman of steel

Opening Up: Lyn Oliver
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The Independent Online
Women have broken down many barriers at work but Lyn Oliver is the first to rise high in the 'man's world' of steel production. At the age of 34 she became the first woman appointed as operations manager of a British Steel plant - in charge of an entirely male staff in a tough and highly technical environment. She also won a National Training Award and a Yorkshire Post Special Achievement Award for her efforts to improve her education and training since leaving school. Lyn says her OU degree specialising in engineering and maths helped her achieve her awards and her career ambition.

What was your family background? My parents were in the motorcycle and two-wheeler business, in Doncaster.

How were your school years?

Interesting. I went to grammar school at Doncaster, then just before my O-levels we decided to move to Epworth (Lincolnshire). The comprehensive school there had a totally different curriculum. I had to learn it all and do a new subject, history, in the last six months before the exams. But I managed it, and got eight O-levels. I've always risen to a challenge.

What was your earliest ambition? I wanted to qualify as a chemical technician. British Steel came round the school canvassing for people to join their two-year training schemes. They were surprised when I wanted to do chemical training, rather than secretarial. But I was adamant I didn't want to follow the traditional route and go into secretarial work. I was interested in the chemical side.

What was your first job?

Trainee chemical technician with British Steel, at 17. There was a 13 week industrial training course at college. We even did arc-welding! There were two or three other girls on the course, the rest were boys. Chemical technicians analyse substances such as iron or steel, to check they meet product specifications, and also waste-products, to make sure we aren't putting any contaminants into the environment.

What made you start studying with the OU?

After ten years with British Steel I'd graduated as a chemical technician and built on my experience, and I'd also taken a chemistry qualification through a further education college.

Then a management vacancy came up for a metallurgist and I got the job - the first woman in British Steel to take up management training in metallurgy. I needed metallurgy qualifications. I had the choice of doing a part-time course two days and two nights a week or the OU - and I chose the OU because it meant I wouldn't have to be away from work. In the environment I'm in, if you're not in work on some days, you're out of the system, you're not up to date with what's happening in the working environment.

What difference has the OU made?

A lot. It's helped move me up to a higher level in British Steel, and I do my work better because I have more knowledge.

What does you current job involve, and how did you get it?

I am the operations manager at the plate mill at Scunthorpe. It involves making sure all jobs are manned on a shift basis, making sure the job runs smoothly, and on time, and any breakdowns are cleared up as soon as possible. I got the job about four years ago. I think through my study I have proved I am committed and dedicated. All the people I work with are men.

Production is a harsher environment than the technical side where I moved from, but I enjoy the challenge and the people I work with.

When I first went there they had never seen a woman manager - they had to get used to me, as I had to them! Once they saw how I operated, that I treated people fairly, they accepted me. If I had been a man, I would still have had to prove myself - as a woman I just had to prove myself a little bit more.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Working through a crisis. When there's a breakdown on the mill and I have to get the right person there, get the work done, and get the mill rolling again. There's a great sense of achievement

...and least?

I don't think there's anything. I even like working shifts.

Would you do more OU study?

If I found it necessary for my job. My studying has always been done because I felt there was a need for it, if I wanted to move on in a different direction.

What are your goals for the future? Eventually I'd like to get onto a higher level of management. There's a lot of competition, because as you get higher the opportunities get fewer. It is a man's world, but I don't think that's a problem or me now. I have proved myself, they know who I am.

To what do you attribute your success? Commitment, drive, motivation and the education I have had throughout my career.