Engineering: Dirty, dangerous – and now slightly less dominated

17 February 2015 -


Gender diversity is taking hold at senior management level in construction – but this trend for inspiring women will stall unless the sector takes proactive steps to attract them

Sandi Rhys Jones OBE

The sight of two straight-talking, technically able women delivering one of the most high-profile construction projects of the decade came as a surprise for many who watched the BBC documentary about the rebuilding of St Pancras, The £800m Railway Station. It was evidence that women not only work in the male-dominated sphere of construction and engineering, but that they also take senior management roles.

Ailie MacAdam of Bechtel went from project managing St Pancras to become commercial manager at Crossrail. Claire Carr, of Costain, is now delivery manager for the Farringdon station project.

These two women are not isolated examples. But back in 1994, when I became involved in promoting women in construction following the influential review of industry performance by Sir Michael Latham, women role models could be counted on one hand. I devised tantalising titles for seminars – “Dirty, dangerous and dominated” was a favourite – to avoid the collective groan that headers such as “gender equality” triggered.

What has changed? Dedicated individuals have played a key role. But top-down commitment from enlightened employers, and the ability of today’s confident young women to find out about non-traditional careers, are also important factors in the progress that has been made. So who are the women that have smashed construction’s reinforced concrete ceilings?

Julie Wood, director at global engineering firm Arup, is one. Wood describes herself as “a late starter” – partly down to sexism in the education and careers system. But she is now a fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Institution of Structural Engineers and CMI, and leads Arup’s work in the UK, Middle East and Africa.

Chartered surveyor Lisa-Jane Risk, property director at Bizspace, Insight a large provider of flexible business space, is another senior woman in the sector. Also of note is chartered builder June Harvey – who movedfrom the construction to the property development division of Simons Group.

Kate Hall, director of global infrastructure at Arup, agrees that the past 15 years have seen growing respect for women. A civil and structural engineer, Hall describes herself as a technical project manager, a people person and a project leader. “I loved being on site,” she says. “Now, I enjoy management because it is about solving a client’s problem.”

There are many other women who bring the skills needed to build a strong engineering and construction sector. The challenge is retention and progression. Many women managers would relish a board position. So it was dispiriting to learn recently that Balfour Beatty failed to find a woman senior civil engineer with FTSE 250 experience for its board. But, with only three construction companies in the FTSE 250, the pool is limited. The company appointed a woman lawyer, working in a different industry, from the other side of the Atlantic.

Which brings me to a key issue: imported versus homegrown talent. At a 2012 conference at the Royal Institution of British Architects (Riba), six of the seven women panellists came to the UK, rather than from it. Why? Well, witness the words of New Zealander lawyer Dame Judith Mayhew-Jonas, who said: “I think it was easier for me as an outsider. I wasn’t constrained by attitudes.”

The Riba conference host was Angela Brady, only the second woman to be elected Riba President. Brady is the latest woman to lead a professional institution, following Pamela Liversidge OBE (Institution of Mechanical Engineers), Jean Venables (Institution of Civil Engineers), Janet O’Neill (Royal Town Planning Institute) and Sarah Buck (Institution of Structural Engineers). The common denominator? They all run their own businesses and can take advantage of the flexibility that brings.

We have made progress since the 1990s, but the danger remains that women have to move abroad to be their own boss or to reach the board of a company. Unless more businesses create an environment that allows women to combine work with family, the sight of the two women delivering the rebuilding of St Pancras will remain the exception – not a motivation for future progress.

Sandi Rhys Jones OBE is a CMI Companion and has worked in construction and engineering for more than 35 years delivering management and marketing services into a wide range of clients, in both executive and non-executive roles

Image courtesy of Goodluz / Shutterstock.

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