Looking Back: The Wren that flew

Hazel Stevenson on Sylvia Downs’ lifetime of achievement in occupational psychology

In November 2009 Sylvia Downs received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Division of Occupational Psychology, recognising her outstanding contribution to our profession. As this 83-year-old stood up to accept her award, it was clear that she is an exceptional woman. I was personally inspired and took the opportunity to follow up with Sylvia, and to share her remarkable story. From her days in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (‘Wrens’) to her pioneering research in psychology through to her active retirement, Sylvia continues to seize the moment and to challenge expectations. Sylvia has always valued people and their potential for growth and development. Professionally she is best known for her work on trainability and on learning, but this is only the beginning.

In November 2009 Sylvia Downs received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Division of Occupational Psychology, recognising her outstanding contribution to our profession. As this 83-year-old stood up to accept her award, it was clear that she is an exceptional woman. I was personally inspired and took the opportunity to follow up with Sylvia, and to share her remarkable story. From her days in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (‘Wrens’) to her pioneering research in psychology through to her active retirement, Sylvia continues to seize the moment and to challenge expectations. Sylvia has always valued people and their potential for growth and development. Professionally she is best known for her work on trainability and on learning, but this is only the beginning.

Getting started in psychology
Sylvia grew up with a determination to contribute and to make a difference, but she initially lacked clarity of direction. Psychology found her rather than the other away around. Sylvia says she was encouraged by those around her. ‘I had good role models and I knew many strong women contributing outside the home as well as within it. This encouraged me to make my mark in both spheres.’

Her education was patchy, with four different grammar schools. ‘I never felt totally integrated at school,’ Sylvia explains, ‘but later in life this helped me to work in different environments and to meet and to understand all types of people.’

She completed a one-year commercial course at Reading University which gave her the prerequisite skills of typing and shorthand. The War intervened and Sylvia enthusiastically joined the Wrens as a radio mechanic, repairing transmitters and receivers on aeroplanes, meeting a variety of people and situations. But it wasn’t to last: ‘This was considered men’s work, and after the war the roles reverted to the men.’

Sylvia was able to further her education, but choices were limited. For example, she could not do an arts course without Latin, whilst mathematics would lead to teaching, which did not appeal to her. Her best option was psychology as a science with pure maths as a subsidiary, which she studied at University College. Sylvia says ‘University excited my passion for psychology, and I blossomed and made invaluable contacts during this time.’

The life of a psychologist in post-war Britain
In post-war Britain, jobs for female psychologists were few, so Sylvia became a ‘secretary’ at the Child Study Centre. She quickly took on responsibility and was effectively a research assistant without the job title. Sylvia was directly involved in the first longitudinal studies on normal babies in England. She worked alongside two psychologists conducting literature reviews, statistical analysis and experimental design. ‘I asked to be given the job title but was refused, and so I resigned. The Head of the Institute of Child Health, however, quickly rehired me as a Research Assistant and so I formally became a psychologist.’

Family life intervened and Sylvia’s first child was born. Although she remained at work until the weekend of her child’s birth, it was not ‘the done thing’ to return after the birth. Sylvia devoted the next seven years to family life, bringing up her two sons and her daughter. By chance she met up with a student who worked with Eunice Belbin and put the two in touch. ‘I was offered the opportunity to work part-time on the training of older people. The London Postal School was having problems training older workers (35 years+) who often had difficulty memorising addresses and who failed the final tests. Eunice and I designed a training programme to support these workers.’

This was the beginning of a 23-year research career at the Industrial Training Research Unit at Cambridge. Sylvia was now officially an occupational psychologist. She used critical incident techniques to identify the reasons for failure for these older postal workers, and the outcome of this was trainability tests. Sylvia was able to apply job sample techniques and trainability to a wide range of situations, and her work supported and enhanced the lives of such diverse groups as immigrant workers doing sewing tasks, Maze prisoners in Northern Ireland, redundant miners and people with Down’s syndrome. She focused on learning as a skill and methods to enhance the individuals’ capability to learn.

In 1977 Sylvia published a paper with Jim Closs and Jess Willoughby called ‘Me Tarzan! You Jane! Career aspirations in the year of the Sex Discrimination Act’. ‘Both our researches showed that boys and girls expressed a strong interest in traditional types of work,’ Sylvia says.
‘For example, girls preferred working with others whatever their sex and with varied work, while boys preferred to work with other men and be focused. on one job. Despite the passing of the Act we did not expect a speedy role reversal.’

Learning and contributing as a psychologist
In the early 1980s Sylvia was headhunted by the Manpower Services Commission to set up the Occupational Research Unit at the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology in Cardiff. ‘My work focused on youth training, unemployed people and older workers. These “learn to learn” programmes supported learning by practice through memorisation, understanding and physical activities.’

Sylvia has always combined high-quality scientific research with a practical approach to her work; science and practice in action. Her trainability tests in South Africa developed and incorporated job sampling and produced significantly higher validities than with standard paper and pencil tests.

Over the years, Sylvia has been a keen observer both of people and work. She understood the changes in work patterns and the impact of this on problem-solving skills. She developed rigorous and scientific methods to identify transferrable skills and trainability, and she harnessed new approaches to learning and development. Her sociality and sensitivity to the needs of others enabled her to make the research a reality. She has a talent for involving others and can readily get research funding to investigate the core issues of the day. She understood organisational cultures and facilitated change in these environments.

As Trish Perry, her colleague for many years, said: ‘Sylvia has helped people at all levels within work to learn and to realise their potential. She is able to take the overview and to appreciate changing business needs. Her research was always exciting and conducted with rigour and integrity. As a friend and colleague she listens and is always supportive, honest and kind. She combines boundless energy with an open, friendly style.’

Sylvia has considerable expertise as  a consultant and a research. She was a partner at Pearn Kandola Downs for three very enjoyable years, where she combined best research practice with consultancy skills. Since the 1990s she has worked as an independent researcher and consultant managing change with companies such as ICI, Shell, SKB and Glaxo. Over an eight-year period, ICI sent Sylvia to South Africa to help with the selection and learning of black people. She encouraged a different mindset and support for equality of opportunity. She also took up the position of chairperson for the Making Learning Happen (Consultancy Group) in Cape Town, South Africa.

Sylvia has continued her professional career into her seventies and beyond. At aged 60, she began her professional work overseas in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. She has made over 36 trips to South Africa since May 1989, initially sponsored by ICI and later by Cape Town University and South African business leaders. She has added significantly to equality of opportunity and learning in this context.

Over the years, Sylvia retained her academic and industrial links including Visiting Professor at City University Business School, Visiting Professor at Queen’s University Belfast and at the Open College of New Zealand Wellington, and as a Visiting Fellow at the University of Exeter.

Contributing to different spheres

Today work–life balance is a topical issue, and both on a professional and personal level, we search for answers. Sylvia has always sought to achieve this balance and has spent her career balancing competing demands from home life as well as from her profession. She has focused her attentions on making it all happen and has clearly succeeded in marrying a highly successful career with wider life activities. She believes, ‘You can have it all but only if you are clear on priorities and make sure you know what matters most. During any career break, it is important to keep in contact with work and not to stop completely. Otherwise it is more difficult to start again and people can be less confident when they do so.’ For Sylvia, individuals can enhance their impact through self-belief, confidence and recognition of the value of each person’s contribution, no matter how small. There are useful lessons for anyone juggling the competing demands of career with home and outside life.

As her son Crispin Downs told me, ‘My mother was a non-stop super-organised home and work manager, superb at her and everyone else’s time management. She worked in a concentrated, disciplined way at home, typically after which she read technical journals while she watched, for example, Panorama or Horizon on television. At home, she was at the centre of communication and information, and knew what we were all doing. A very hard worker, she also cooked, washed, ironed and organised others to help in the house and garden.’

Sylvia herself says that working from home, her family had to be her ‘research unit. They had to try out trainability tests, numerous questionnaires and aptitude tests, and guided discovery learning, which my daughter particularly disliked:?“Just tell me!”, came the angry voice!’

Future goals
Sylvia is active in the community and continues to give her time and skills to others. She has a strong relationship with her family, three children, eight grandchildren and three great grandchildren, with another expected soon. She currently works with the Exeter Aged Macular Society where she has introduced a buddy system and made meetings more friendly and productive for participants. She is working with  Age Concern, looking at older people’s interests and how to engage them. She continues to love travel and has visited many countries around the globe. Her next goal is to reach the Antarctic: she recognises the signs of ageing but is still full of energy and vitality. Sylvia feels that you get wiser as you get older but the essential ‘you’ still shines through. She continues to write and she has started
a publishing firm with her husband and grandson. She has republished her Learning at Work book as Making Learning Happen and has written a new book on Passing 70 Plus with Trish Perry. ‘This tries to highlight the positive aspects of being old and has given us much pleasure to write.’

As Anne Hamill said about her friend and colleague ‘What makes Sylvia tick is her focus on lifetime learning. She firmly believes that to keep young you have to do something different every year.’ Sylvia has certainly lived up to this with diverse activities such as learning to play drums in South Africa and being the one of the first tourists in Outer Mongolia, both undertaken while she was into her seventies.

Throughout her career, Sylvia has given back to the profession, being involved with the British Psychological Society’s Occupational Section and then helping to set up the Division of Occupational Psychology. In 1973 she became the Division’s Chair and she served for three years. Our thanks go to her for her ideas and hard work in building up our profession.

Sylvia’s message to us as psychologists is ‘to do something that you believe in, that is really valuable to others and that changes their lives’. She knows that as a psychologist she has the advantage of transferrable skills and she has used them to improve the lives of others. Sylvia has lived by this motto. She retains her belief in the potential of people and that you can change lives through your skills and actions. She is the embodiment of this belief and continues to enrich the lives
of others.

Hazel Stevenson is Chair Elect of the Division of Occupational Psychology
[email protected]

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