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Mary Pierre-Harvey: overcoming racism

The role of Director of Estates and Campus Services at Oxford Brookes is an important one, a broad portfolio, which includes maintaining the estate and providing other services essential to the smooth running of the University. Plus, the role requires the knowledge, experience and determination to deliver major capital projects in a large, complex organisation, as well as interpersonal skills to gain the confidence of a wide range of stakeholders.

Step forward Mary Pierre-Harvey BSc MSc MRICS, who was appointed in 2019. Meeting in London, Mary has a warmth and vivacity that immediately puts you at ease, inspiring you to dig a little deeper.

Brought up in Trinidad by a single mother determined to give her daughter the education she had not received, Mary went to a Catholic convent school. She confesses that her A levels were not the best, but they were good enough to take her to university, with a scholarship from the Trinidad and Tobago government.

The concept of who I was and where I came from, was out of kilter, a colleague even asked me if we lived in trees and ate bananas!

As a black woman studying with mainly white men, she recalls her first day at the University of Greenwich. “The concept of who I was and where I came from, was out of kilter, a colleague even asked me if we lived in trees and ate bananas!”

Following her degree in Quantity Surveying at Greenwich, and an MSc in Architecture at UCL, Mary’s career took off, working on high profile projects that included the restoration of Westminster Abbey Chapter House and Dover Castle Great Tower.

Working for a number of world- leading organisations, Mary admits she has experienced discrimination, but is hesitant to reveal the details. Pushed, she will comment on what she sees as unacceptable discrimination and is keen to share her determination to encourage greater inclusivity in education and the workplace. “I don’t believe that we will ever completely eradicate discrimination,” she says. “But, we can, individually and collectively, do much more to promote equality and inclusion and effect zero tolerance for all forms of inequality and exclusion in workplaces. Let inclusion and equality start with me and spread like wildfire!”

I have walked through the valleys of the shadows of racism, sexism, bullying and unequal pay

Construction and property are industries that continue to fall short in reducing the disparity between male and female employees and Mary has first-hand experience of what it is like to be a black woman working in these areas. “I have walked through the valleys of the shadows of racism, sexism, bullying and unequal pay, which I have experienced directly from white and male managers and which were meant to break and destroy me completely. They have only served to make me stronger, wiser, more empathetic and stand taller. One day, I will tell my story! It is my faith in God that has protected me and brought me out a much more compassionate person.”

And this is where we discover her core, the spirit – that has kept Mary going forward, despite the tears and personal challenges that have, she admits, sometimes taken her to the edge. For Mary, compassion is a skill and she says the ‘knots’ in her career have helped her become more compassionate and determined to make a difference.

Her deep faith has, she says, been her companion, taking her through the difficult times and now accompanying her on her mission to make a difference for others. “The reality is that you have to work harder to get the same job. There is progress in recognising the issues, which are more widely spoken about, but there is unconscious bias and we are all prejudiced, in one way or another. But we should celebrate the progress that has been made and get on with making a real difference”.

I want the world to know how forward thinking on diversity Oxford Brookes University is

Mary says she is in a good place now and is proud of her role and the University. “Oxford Brookes is breaking the mould and breaking ranks with the norm, I was appointed on merit, not just because I am a black woman. When I was told that I got the job, I burst into tears of joy and ran straight into church to thank God! I am so happy to be at a university that is trailblazing true diversity at the highest Senior Management levels, where others fear to tread. I am the UK’s first black female Director of Estates and Campus Services at a large university. It’s early days yet, but I feel included and have ‘room to fly’. I want the world to know how forward thinking on diversity Oxford Brookes University is.”

With her career journey on track, Mary is looking further forward. “My leadership will promote progression from within, ensuring succession planning and ultimately, passing my role over to the next Director of Estates. The next steps for me will be board level and non-executive director opportunities.”

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Sometime following her interview, Mary sends a message. “I would like to add that, when I pass from this world, my tombstone is engraved with ‘Mary helped me to….’. Hopefully, this will be a long time in the future and it is likely that much more will be said about this inspirational, energetic and humble woman.

Mary is an inspiring role-model and we are sure she will continue to build her legacy, generously helping others, for many years to come.

Words: Wendy Jacob
Photographs: Paul Tait

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