An industry for every1

As a number of organisations launch initiatives to increase diversity within the construction industry, we talk to women at ISG and beyond about their experiences, and discuss how we can create a more balanced workforce.

Despite being well into the 21st century, the lack of women working in construction continues to be a talking point. Although inequality is a challenge facing the workforce as a whole, the number of women working in construction remains low, averaging 11 per cent across the UK, according to The Guardian. We are performing much better than the UK average with 23 per cent of our workforce comprising of women.

Studies by the Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity in 2014 found that employment structures in the construction industry, such as the high levels of self-employment, meant that women often found it harder to get a foot in the door and gain steady employment. To understand the experiences and issues behind the statistics, we spoke to women who work at ISG to discuss how we can attract more women into construction.

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Louise Westlake, Commercial Trainee

Louise joined as a PA and is currently re-training to become a Commercial Manager.

“I had always wanted to work in construction from a young age. However, the lack of women in construction had put me off. I fell into the role of an Assistant PA which led me to join ISG. As I supported the Divisional Directors and Divisional Commercial Managers, I learned that despite my preconceptions, the construction industry had progressed and women were welcomed.

“When I expressed my interest in training as a Commercial Manager, [the company] was more than happy to help me progress into this role, which was a fantastic opportunity to gain the training while working on site for ISG.

“I really enjoy working on site and seeing a project progress and come together. As I am quite new, I’m still amazed at the speed of a project’s progress. It’s great to see how design ideas translate to real projects. In the next five years I would like to see more high level positions in the construction industry filled by women.”

Emma Fisher, Technical Services Manager

After graduating from university, Emma started her career in sales. After spending a number of years selling equipment to the construction industry, she decided to make the move to a career in construction.

“I had worked in sales, and most of the equipment we sold was to firms in construction, so I did that for a number of years. Then I went to a construction company and offered to help install our product. That was when I moved into construction proper, but I have always worked at places associated with construction. When I first worked on a construction site the main surprise was that there were no ladies toilets!

“It could be argued that women bring different management styles, but even taking women out of the equation, there are so many different working styles that I don’t think bringing more women on site itself changes things dramatically. I just think the industry is changing anyway, so more women being on site is one part of that change.

“I think people need to understand what jobs there are in construction. It’s easy for a boy to hear from his dad what he could do on a site, but not many girls hear about what jobs there are. Everyone assumes it is just carpenters, electricians and plumbers, but way more than that is done on a site.”

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Helena Field, Group Sales & Marketing Director - Asia

Helena joined ISG in 2006 as the Head of Marketing for Fit Out. Earlier last year, she became Group Sales & Marketing Director for Asia.

“I had spent over 15 years in marketing and PR roles in Australia and Asia in three very varied sectors that brought me into contact with business leaders from a variety of industries. I love fit out and refurbishment. I hadn’t been exposed to that in Australia because everything I did in my previous role was new, out of the ground. I am constantly surprised how unassuming and humble our people can be about the work that they do. For example, I can be totally overwhelmed by the sheer size and scope of a project and then watch and listen as the project leaders disseminate the whole thing and confidently articulate how the job can be won and then delivered – and then they go ahead and do it.

“My recent Asian experience has surprised me because despite the obvious differences in aspects such as language, legislation, procurement processes and so on, when it comes down to it, the customers, developers, owners and occupiers all have exactly the same aspirations as they do in Europe and Australia.”

Chrissi McCarthy, Managing Director of Constructing Equality

After working in construction for over 10 years, Chrissi set up Constructing Equality with the aim of shaping the future of the construction industry into a more inclusive sector to work in. Chrissi regularly runs diversity training courses for our staff.

“My dad worked in construction so I was first on site with him and I fell in love with it. When I was 16 I had initially decided to pursue traditional academic qualifications and study for A-levels. However, at 18 or 19, while continuing to study on day-release I decided to follow a career in construction. I went on to pursue a degree in Construction Management at Liverpool John Moores University and started on site as a Setting Out Engineer. I am an ambitious person, and after working for ten years I was frustrated at my lack of career progression. I also wasn’t happy that people were expected to work more than 70 hours per week, which obviously affected both men and women. “In order to attract and retain the best staff, I felt that changes were needed. I wanted to change the image of the sector to reflect the fascinating and exciting industry that it is, and show the broad range of desirable careers rather than being a last resort option.

"The very ‘male’ culture on many building sites can be deceptive. When you speak to individuals on a site you realise that they are often very different when speaking one-on-one. More women onsite can change this dynamic. “Although some companies are trying very hard to accommodate the needs of individuals, some are not. Despite this, I am positive that in a few years’ time the industry will be a much more attractive industry for women to work in.”

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Where are we?

Emma Fisher (EF): “As a woman, you have to prove yourself before being accepted on site, whereas men can arrive without a second glance.”

Louise Westlake (LW): “Unfortunately, at times the male dominance of the industry means that women have to work extra hard to be accepted. It’s all about earning respect, showing you are a capable member of the team and asking as many questions as you can. I find that women in construction tend to give a different perspective to challenging queries. Women tend to also have a different communication style with a more caring approach to sensitive situations and generally work with discretion.”

Helena Field (HF): “I could say things like ‘calm and rational thinking’, ‘creativity’, and ‘a nurturing approach’, but that would be crazy as I’ve known women with none of these traits and men with all of them. I think women can bring just as much to the industry as men.”

What needs to change?

EF: “I think the construction industry needs to improve the work-life balance. This affects both men and women. There’s a culture of having to be there when the sun comes up, but it shouldn’t be about the number of hours you are present at work, but about getting the job done. The construction industry needs to follow the rest of the world in adapting to more flexible ways of working.”

Chrissi McCarthy (CM): “I think that the Be Fair Framework set up by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) will have a great impact. By changing how people are treated across the industry, including across the supply chain, it will make for a much fairer industry.”

EF: “I think people need to understand what jobs there are in construction. At the moment there is an RAF advert that shows a list of the hundreds of jobs available. If they did that for construction, people would be amazed.”

HF: “[We should] promote examples of successful women and men in the industry. Some of them made an early choice to study a construction or engineering discipline, while others had transferable skills and experience. They all have a story to tell that demonstrates construction is an interesting, challenging and thoroughly rewarding industry to be a part of.”

CM: “There are career options for a wide range of skill sets. For example, for those who love design there is architecture, and for people who enjoy maths, they can become engineers.”

How can we move the industry forward?

LW: “I would suggest talking to women who actually work within the industry. Have a conversation where you can really ask the questions on your mind to find out about what working on site is really like. Although I was very nervous about changing my role, the help and support I have received from other women at ISG who have made similar transitions has been fantastic.”

CM: “I would advise women who have a real fascination for construction to try it as a career. I would urge them to do their research into the industry and possible avenues open to them.”