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Feminist? No: what our industry needs to be is equalist

Jo Williams

I’m often asked why, in the current arena of inclusion and diversity, we still need organisations like Women in Property.

I don’t class myself as a feminist, yet I find myself as national chairman of a women’s group because it’s still needed and has a role to play.

I class myself as an equalist, and an employer. I want the best person for the role and with the right attitude to succeed to their fullest potential and personal fulfilment. That means being honest about the people we’re employing, regardless of gender, ethnicity or orientation.

So, are we getting it right? Is the culture of the industry allowing us to diversify and attract the right people to the job? 

Novelty or insecurity

I started in construction in the late 80s. When I walked onto site I got one of two reactions from the guys: either novelty, or insecurity. I preferred the novelty response because at least people talked to me, whereas the insecurity meant I was ignored or treated with distrust.

When I worked as a technician for a concrete manufacturer, I soon realised that I was being sent to the ‘difficult site agent’ sites. This wasn’t discrimination. The management team realised my people skills meant I could handle the situation better than many of my colleagues. This was about putting the right person in the right job.

Does anyone remember John Noakes climbing Nelson’s Column in 1977 for Blue Peter? No safety rope, no PPE, and then climbing an under-slung ladder to get to the top?

That was little over 40 years ago – still within living memory, but it would not be acceptable now. 

In a similar way, the culture towards inclusion and diversity of our industry has developed. That initial reaction I used to receive changed to, ‘This one’s ok – she knows her stuff’. The culture of the industry was starting to change as society in general was changing. Certain behaviours have become unacceptable.

The outing of the Presidents Club last year is a good example – 1980s attitudes held onto by dinosaurs who made younger attendees uncomfortable, until the whole debacle crumbled. 

Nowadays, I find myself being treated as equal to my peers, without question. On the odd occasion when I do find outdated attitudes, it’s more a reflection of that individual than the industry as a whole. In fact, I believe most senior men just want to put the right person in the right post without judgement.

Millennial impact

So, with this cultural change in progress, where is the future likely to take us?

Millennials are a different breed to my generation. They have an expectation of universal equality and won’t stand for the treatment others have had to put up with over the years. They expect flexible working and opportunity to succeed.

“This is not just about gender; many of the issues that affect women are also keenly felt by men”

As the old guard are retiring, millennials are increasing in seniority and having a positive effect on the rest of us. But with so much competition from other industries, we need to maintain open dialogue and ensure opportunities are accessible to them – only then can our industry – grow and thrive.

So yes, organisations like Women in Property are still very much needed. We work alongside employers, influencers and other professional groups to help attract girls and young women into the industry and support their ongoing development.

But this is not just about gender; many of the issues that affect women are also keenly felt by men – not least flexibility, work-life balance and career progression. Cultural change is based on collective willpower, and this industry is building steady momentum.

I look forward to the day when Women in Property is no longer needed.

Jo Williams is national chairman of Women in Property, a chartered building surveyor, and a partner at Sanderson Weatherall

Readers' comments (6)

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  • Interesting article – spot on about millennials, and the relative maturity of inclusion related to health and safety – but the opening statement (‘I don’t class myself as a feminist’) is hugely misguided.

    Feminism is about women and men being equal, and there is nothing controversial or radical about it – it is simply about getting rid of the systems, cultures and biases that stop the right person getting the job. I am a man, and also a proud feminist – it shouldn’t be a label to shy away from.

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  • It is sad to see this title, showing that the author buys into the demonization of feminism, and proving that her thesis that things are now better for women is far from actually reached, if she is ashamed of even calling herself a feminist in this industry. If you believe in equality of women to men then you are a feminist by definition. The head of an organization specifically designed to boost women should know this and be fighting against the demonization of feminism, rather than adding to it. As one of the millennial women she talks about, I also strongly disagree that we are in any way succeeding in changing the tide in the industry. In fact, my experience, and that of my female peers, is of being consistently passed over for similarly experienced and aged men, hence the continued HUGE gender pay gap driven by low levels of senior women. If there has been a change in this in recent years, I for one have not seen it, and all surveys and figures point to this also not being the case. The only change has been in the lip service paid by companies, without any actual action. And yes 'millennial men suffer some of the same issues' but women also face a huge amount of unique and separate issues, so acting like we're all in it together and facing the same challenges which can be fixed with the same policies will get us precisely nowhere. Where am I as a woman in the industry meant to turn if even the organizations supposedly there to support me buy into a worldview where feminism is bad and men face the same issues in the workplace as women do?

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  • I highly recommend the author actually look up the word feminist before she writes an article about it. A quick 2 second Google search before posting this, would have saved her a lot of embarrassment.
    Feminism is about equality. And without it, she wouldn't even have a job.
    She also goes on to annoyingly reinforcing the idea that feminism is about women "wanting for rights then men". Thanks for that.
    I'm also concerned when she says incredibly tone deaf statements such as, "I want the right person for the job". If she says this, she needs to then follow it up with HOW she goes about this. Transgendered, disabled, poor....etc etc persons might very well be the best, but as they are on the fringes of our society and have access issues, how does she go about recruiting diverse teams.

    Such a horrible article. I suggest you pull this completely misguided piece and write about why we need MORE male and female feminists in the industry. THAT is how we will get better around gender, race, sexuality, BAME, disability issues.

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  • Has it ever occured to you that your own personal experiences might not be representative of other women's experiences? Why extrapolate your own experience to excuse the shockingly low levels of diversity in construction, the terrible gender pay gaps and the fact that the number of women in construction is actually decreasing?

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  • The title of this article is clumsy at best and the content is unsettling. As a young construction professional, I am concerned by a number of statements and if I am brutally honest, I find the objective of the article confusing and unclear. Is the author looking for a space to out herself as not being a feminist for fear of judgment by her peers in the industry? (Although if you are an equalist - by default you are a feminist - unless you think everyone deserves to be treated equally, EXCEPT women?)
    Whilst I appreciate and respect everyone’s right to give their own first-hand experience, this should NEVER be taken as commonplace and replace many other people’s not so positive experiences. Can you really say ‘the culture towards inclusion and diversity of our industry has developed’ if you can only truly recognise that your persona experience has changed, with no information or data supporting this claim of the industry as a whole?
    I would like to challenge the comment - In fact, I believe most senior men just want to put the right person in the right post without judgement. Do you, Jo Williams, also believe that most women not in senior roles are just ‘not the right person’ for them? Are the women in the industry, many of whom are overqualified for the roles they find themselves in, just not suitable? Are the men dominating the construction industry all just ‘better for the job’ in comparison with women? I don’t think you make your view on this totally clear and I am sure many would refute this claim.
    I’d like to explain a pretty critical point to you. The old guard are retiring, that’s a fact. Millennials are entering the workplace, that’s also a fact. The old guard have been training up and developing their colleagues who will no doubt replace them when they leave. Do you think the old guard decided to teach those around them about equality and diversity and right the wrongs of yesteryear? Or do you think those who trained under the old guard will just share the same sexist, misogynistic and archaic views? The views that the industry has been complicit in for a very long time. I for one think it’ll be the latter.
    Millennials might have an expectation of universal equality, and rightly so, the work place should be totally equal. It isn’t the way though, nor is it looking likely to be the way. Millennials entering the industry will face a sharp shock in expectations versus reality, particularly at the hands of the old guard and/or their apprentices. Perhaps as result, we will continue to see statistics like these from a previous CN article, that only 50% of women remain in the industry after 2 years - which are extremely alarming, especially when you consider the ever increasing skills shortage within the UK.

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