Fred Starr recollects: Taken for granted

Materials World magazine
1 Jun 2018

Fred Starr recollects who of his line managers formed him most and how he handled not being respected in the workplace.

Ever been pressurised into doing something at work, knowing it isn’t quite right? Don’t worry. It makes you a member of the human race. But when does being used turn into criminality? The correspondence in the press, epitomised by the phrase #MeToo, suggests that only now are female employees giving voice to being seen as a perk of the job. The disciplines of materials technology and mining, one hopes, are free from the stinking behaviour that pervades film, TV, and the newspapers. We are still, however – pun intended – man-heavy professions, so good conduct is not too surprising. 

Women in metallurgy  

In the five years I spent as a student apprentice at Dorman Long, learning about the steel industry, I never encountered a woman except as someone serving in the works canteen. In our year at Battersea College, there was just one girl. Even that seemed a bit odd, knowing just how dirty, dangerous, and unpleasant life was in the forge, rolling mill, and blast furnace.

Today, there is a somewhat more sensible attitude to the employment of women, but I lost touch with the mainstream of metallurgy after graduating. The steel industry’s loss of my services was a gain for British Gas, although some people in Dorman Long did not see my passing as a misfortune. On leaving, I glimpsed the reports on my progress. The comment from the manager of Dorman Long’s biggest open heath plant was that ‘Mr Starr is completely unfitted to work in industry’. This man, who was as autocratic and bigoted as any 19th-century iron master, would have had a fit if one of Dorman’s student apprentices had been a woman. Have things really changed, I wonder?

Glass ceilings  

It was probably inevitable that I would end up somewhere like the London Research Station, my home for the next quarter of a century. LRS, as we called it, had the personality of a typical British university of the time. Somewhat disorganised, reasonably well funded, minimal bureaucracy, giving the staff lots of latitude, and with a good sprinkling of women from middle management downwards. For most of the time I was there, my boss was Miss Sheila Bruce. Of all the people I have worked for, she was the top one. 

Sheila built up and ran what was called the physical methods group, which used techniques such as XRD, spectroscopy, XRF, scanning microscopes, and mass spectroscopy. These were being used to analyse the various oddball substances the gas industry produced. Myself, running the metallurgy lab, doing failure investigations, was on an outlier, making use of these techniques. Hence my relationship with Sheila was different to that of my colleagues. Although not a metallurgist, she understood that my reports had to get the engineering staff on gasworks to do something, otherwise we were wasting our time. It’s largely thanks to Sheila that I am here, writing for Materials World

Apart from Dr Eileen Pankhurst, who ran the microbiological group at LRS, I don’t know anyone who worked as hard, and strove to get the best out her staff. But both Sheila and Eileen never got above the middle level. Both of them were never unwilling to call a spade a spade, which used to disturb our cosy monthly management meetings. Although a workaholic, Sheila retired early, having had to put up with a series of ineffective men who were put in as her superior. Although the term ‘glass ceiling’ had yet to be invented, it was there, in bulletproof strength.

Enhancing the profile 

I began this piece by referring to what goes on in the film industry. As much as anything, it is the wielding of absolute power, and as they also say about power, it is the ultimate aphrodisiac, which might explain some of the consequences. But all power corrupts, and here I turn to another form of exploitation going on in the world of R&D, affecting men and women. It is not only taken for granted, but accepted.

It is where the head of department, and his or her cronies automatically attach their names to a report that an underling has written. Here I discount the situation where some unfortunate person has the job of pulling things together from a research team, and then a senior person has to go through it, often doing a major rewrite. What we have is the rubber stamping of a manager’s name on the paper, on the tenuous grounds that they have overall responsibility for what is being published. London Research Station, being a rather lefty organisation, was free from this sort of thing. But it was commonplace in other parts of British Gas. Indeed, there were situations in which a paper from a junior scientist would go out under someone else’s name, their own being omitted. If this is not an example of absolute power, corrupting, I don’t know what it is. When British Gas downsized its R&D, moving to a new site, with everyone fearful for their jobs, these pressures increased. As I was not prepared to lie back and enjoy seeing my stuff being officially plagiarised, I decided to make my excuses and left. Honour unsullied and, more importantly, redundancy pay intact.