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Fighting her corner in a man's world

MRS Curtis-Thomas is used to being su r rounded by men. Af ter A-levels she went to the job centre and told the careers adviser that she liked maths and working with her hands.

'It was one of those moments that sets your life on a certain course, ' she recalls.

'The reason I'm in this room today is that man. I knew nothing of engineering but he sent me to the interview.' Mrs Curtis-Thomas applied for an apprenticeship in mechanical fitting in a machine tool factory on the docks in Portsmouth. Even after the interview she was not sure what the job involved.

'They said, 'Can you start on Monday?' It seemed rude to say, 'Star t what?' so I just tu rned up.' There were no other women in the factory and Mrs Curtis-Thomas was not welcomed by the other workers.

'A guy assaulted me with a crowbar. When he was subsequently sacked I was sent to Coventry for 18 months. When people won't speak to you, you learn a good deal.' She wanted to be a foreman, but was told that it was a 'dead man's shoes' position, and that every man on the docks would have to die before she got it. A sympathetic manager advised her to go to university.

Despite claiming to find the academic rigour of a degree in engineering at Cardiff University 'horrendous, ' Mrs Curtis-Thomas stayed on for two years afterwards to do research work.

She then worked for Shell at a chemical engineering factory in Manchester, responsible for the mechanical and major building works.

She loved the job and stayed for eight years, but by that point the enormous amount of international travel involved was interfering with bringing up her children.

'Flexi-time and job sharing only existed for women in admin, ' she says.

So in 1993 she started working four days a week for Birmingham City Council as head of corporate planning.

After three years in the role she took five months off work to take her children backpacking round America, managing to cover 40 states.

After lecturing on business ethics at US universities including Harvard and MIT she intended to take over as dean of engineer ing and business at Newport University in Wales.

'I told them I was standing as an MP, too, but not to worry as I'd never get elected, ' she jokes.