Breaking Through The Glass Ceiling

Jackie Chappell with President Fred Locke

Jackie Chappell is proof women can break through the glass ceiling in business. She told the Probus Club of Basingstoke, the social club for retired professional and business managers, about her rise to the top in a traditionally male working environment.

Being a single mother with a job as a stock controller at Porsche (GB) in Reading she needed to supplement her earnings so she started a market stall selling knitting wool. This proved successful and encouraged by her friend they opened a shop selling the same product range. However overheads meant that there was not sufficient profit to pay both of them. So what to do? Seeing a job advertised working from 5.00am to 9.00am meant that while Jackie’s children could be looked after by her friend, she could continue with the shop and Jackie helped out at the weekend.

This part time position was with British Rail as an on train assistant ticket examiner. After initial training the guard almost prevented her from boarding the train in the sidings on her first week on the job.

“Clearly he didn’t want me to do the job and told me to sit in First Class and read the newspaper. By Friday he had relented and I started at the front of the train and we met in the middle. I was off and running.”

Thereafter she became the first female station manager at Henley. This sounds grand but in reality meant that as well as selling tickets she could keep the station clean and tidy.

Then came privatisation . Working at Paddington for six months she won promotion to area Training and Development supervisor then became Engineering Manager in Reading, where, after fifteen years she took redundancy. A phone call encouraged her to take a different role as the interim manager of the Rail Industry Training Council where after several months she took on the position of Chief Executive. She was the first female CEO across the privatised rail industry which was steeped in male imagery from Stephenson’s Rocket through the Fat Controller in Thomas the Tank Engine stories and burley men driving monstrous smoke belching steam engines. In the 80s there were still times when passengers refused to board a train that had a woman driver.

Arriving at her first board meeting with the heads of all the rail companies she was mistaken for someone to serve the coffee. She summed up all her courage to face these men down.

“No, you are mistaken. I’m the CEO of the Rail Industry Training Council. Mine’s black please with one sugar.”

“I didn’t make the same mistake again of wearing a dark trouser suit as I looked too much like the men. I learned that I had to stand out from the crowd so I always wear something pink.”

Dealing with union leader Jimmy Knapp and government minister John Prescott MP was part and parcel of the job, receiving tremendous industry and government recognition during the seven years she was in charge.

The Paddington rail crash caused Jackie to review her life. She normally used that train but was on holiday. For the last thirteen years she has run her own company in Reading called the Ironing Lady with a sister business the Cleaning Ladies, with twenty two staff and seven vans. She was the Sue Ryder Business Woman of the Year 2013 and in 2016 was winner of Barclays Bank south England heat of the Female Entrepreneur Icon Category. There are few men who could achieve what Jackie Chappell has done.