Valerie Owen defied convention, becoming first female chair at Swan Housing

Valerie Owen defied convention, becoming first female chair at Swan Housing

No stranger to smashing glass ceilings, Owen joined Jones Lang LaSalle as associate director in 1989, and went on to become the first ever architect director at the firm.

Between 2000 and 2004, Valerie Owen rapidly climbed the corporate ladder to become the managing director of London First, a business membership organisation where she managed economic development programmes in sustainability, housing and health.

She went on to start her own business in 2004 taking up the role of managing director at Le Vaillant Owen, an innovative consultancy specialising in sustainable development and community regeneration.

In 2007, the global banking crises had a catastrophic effect on the property development and construction industries and that same year Owen became a chartered environmentalist and, being truly multi-disciplinary, working as an architect, town planner, development surveyor and environmentalist.

“I also began providing strategic advice on complex sustainable development projects, as well as creating a portfolio of non-executive directorships in businesses with construction and property interests,” Owen says.

“I have never stopped practising as an architect and continue to manage construction projects on site, particularly heritage building work. I have overcome challenges to succeed in my chosen career through extraordinary resilience, hard work and innovation.”

Despite only 20 per cent of the construction sector workforce being female, Valerie Owen defied convention by becoming the first female chair of the £100m turnover Swan Housing Group, but she’s no stranger to smashing glass ceilings. 

In 1989, Owen joined Jones Lang LaSalle as associate director and went on to become the first ever architect director at the firm, establishing architectural arms of the business in London and Paris at the heart of the recession, before leaving in year 2000.

While tackling the issue of sustainable development in construction, Owen has also turned her attention to addressing skills shortages—a crucial concern for the industry—and she is championing apprenticeships, especially for the disadvantaged communities served by Swan Housing. 

She says: “Around 50 per cent of students entering architecture courses in university are women, but only around 15 per cent actually qualify as architects.

“The landscape has changed in that more girls start university courses, but it has barely changed at all in terms of the overall numbers of women who enter the profession.”  

Rigid structure

Some of the factors contributing to high drop-out rates amongst women in university and at the onset of their careers includes relatively low pay at the beginning—meaning women cannot afford to pay for child care; and very long hours, which are incompatible with family and work-life balance.

The profession being a male dominated occupation, which is supported by male dominated professional partnerships, contractors, subcontractors and suppliers means women can struggle to find their place. Furthermore, the industry being a project deadline-driven business does not often support flexible working.

However, the composition of Swan Housing’s board of directors tells a different story to the one depicted in industry statistics, as the majority of non-executive directors roles are occupied by women, with half of executive directors also being women, Owen shares.


Valerie Owen won the First Women of the Built Environment Award. Do you know any exceptional women like Valerie? Nominate them now for a First Women Award.

Read on to find out how Valerie Owen is championing initiatives to help young girls from disadvantaged backgrounds get into construction.


Leave a Comment

You might also like: