3 April 2017
By Kirsten Henson
Promoting diversity in construction
Last month the world celebrated International Women’s Day, and with the signing of Article 50, we are increasingly exposed to concerns about the looming skills gap in our industry. The two are connected. With women making up approximately 14% of the construction work force, tapping the potential is critical to the future of our industry.
A lot has been written about why women and young people are not attracted into the industry. After facing poor careers advice at school in which the exploration of a career in engineering was summarised as ‘wanting to stand on the side of a road in a hard hat’, I went on to tackle a predominantly uninspiring engineering degree in which I cannot recall a single female lecturer. However, as for many in my position, the battle was not over. Facing latent sexism crudely disguised as ‘banter’ by both those in senior positions and on the job site was, I hate to say it, somehow expected. However, being undermined in a cursory manner from some senior women in the industry was a little more difficult to rationalise.
I have spoken to many younger women, and unfortunately, sexism within the industry still exists. It needs to be tackled; women need to know that if they are not confident in standing up to such behaviour, there is someone at senior level to whom the issue can be reported. It is then up to that senior person to handle the situation with the delicacy it requires. I was fortunate enough to find such a Project Director on one construction site where, as a young woman, I found myself somewhat paralysed in the face of ‘banter’. After quietly reporting the situation, as I had experienced it, the inappropriate behaviour stopped immediately and almost 10 years on I still occasionally work alongside one of the individuals involved. We have a positive and constructive working relationship.
I rather stumbled on the solution to the second issue…I set up my own consultancy. I now find myself as a female in a senior position. Without me really knowing it, the consultancy has become a home for intelligent, ambitious, young people. It is a place where they do not have to fight to be heard, where they can share their stories of a difficult meeting, where egos are left at the door of the office and we function as one team with honesty, respect and integrity.
There is a strong network of women in the built environment; Urbanistas and Women in Property to name two. We seek out one another to share experiences of being a minority in an industry that so many of us are passionate about. From the young women starting their careers struggling to gain respect, to senior managers being overlooked for personal coaching and career progression, sharing the stories helps. Knowing you are not alone in your battle helps to gives you the drive to fight another day.
And it is not just women. Many of KLH’s clients and collaborators are male, and it seems men of all seniority also appreciate talking with someone who will help them explore both personal and professional decisions. A non-judgemental confidant; I consider myself fortunate to have been approached by male clients and colleagues to explore far-ranging issues such as retirement, career-change and family issues. Maybe it seems strange to discuss such things with clients, but in a world where the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 is suicide, if I can contribute to a broader discussion around emotional well-being for the entire industry, I am happy to do so.
The team at KLH spend time at various universities and schools lecturing on a wide range of subjects associated with sustainable development. My message is always the same: construction is an incredible career choice, with a multitude of technical disciplines. It is challenging for a variety of reasons, but the rewards are huge. I love walking through London and seeing projects in which I have played a part, they will be part of society longer than I will.
This is a message we need to get out to our young people, and that message needs to be delivered by women, ethnic minorities and disabled people of all ages currently enjoying a successful career in construction. We need to be honest about the challenges and we need to provide the working environments that encourage, develop and support young people to achieve success. The future of our industry depends on it. The contribution of diversity in construction runs deeper than simply offering a different perspective in business.