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International Women's Day: Shining a light on parity

In June, I will celebrate 25 years of working in the rail sector and the construction industry. And I do mean celebrate because I have enjoyed it immensely.

On International Women’s Day, which this year is focusing on gender parity, the overriding message that I want to convey is that in this industry the opportunity for parity is already here. But, sadly, only a few people realise it.

There are startling statistics and I will not dispute them. A recent Women in Rail report revealed that women make up only four per cent of the current engineering workforce of the UK rail industry and that in absolute terms, the total number of women employed in the rail industry is the same as it was 100 years ago at the dawn of World War I.

However, I would propose that it is not because the sector, and everyone in it, is inherently biased or discriminate. Instead, I would suggest it is in part due to our image. As an industry, we have failed to engage with the general public, the source of the workforce, to sell what a fantastic career construction can offer everyone, whether male or female.

Looking beyond gender

Throughout my career I’ve found companies I’ve worked for value that I’m a problem solver, I’m energetic, I’m an effective communicator and I can create a vision and motivate a team to achieve it. All of this has been more important than my gender.

That’s not to say that being a female in construction doesn’t bring its challenges.

I have faced many of them myself since I started as a 16-year-old civil engineering apprentice. Have I been underpaid compared to a male colleague?  Yes. Did I do something about it? Yes. But if I asked my male colleagues if the same thing had happened to them, they would also answer yes. The key is to do something about it.

“I prefer to take positive action to help the industry address the gender imbalance, not least because it makes business sense”

The UK Government announced in February that companies will have to publish gender pay gap figures on their websites from April 2018. I see this as a good step forward, not as a blame tool to name and shame; instead I view it as a step towards understanding the problem – and if you understand a problem, you can solve a problem.

The question remains, however – does a young woman, contemplating school exams, apprenticeships or university courses know that parity is possible in our industry? That creativity, energy and problem-solving counts for more than chromosome X or Y?

Actions speak louder

Rather than bandy about statistics and sensationalise headlines, I prefer to take positive action to help the industry address the gender imbalance, not least because it makes business sense.

We must celebrate success by shining a light on our fantastic female engineers, managers, administrators, surveyors, planners, designers and many others that already contribute to the success of the industry.

Let’s promote our existence to each other and the general public. Not in a way that smacks of ‘look, we have a token female’ – everyone can see through that. Let’s do it in a way that uses plain language about the amazing things we create, is engaging, entertaining and inspiring.

“We should modernise and change our working practices in our offices and our sites; not just to attract more female workers, but for the health benefit of everyone in the industry”

We should also modernise and change our working practices in our offices and our sites; not just to attract more female workers (which I firmly believe it will do), but for the health benefit of everyone in the industry. New technology can help make the industry less manual, less physical on site and in some cases can make flexible working possible. Laing O’Rourke’s drive for off-site manufacturing is a leading example of the kind of change that is needed.

With huge investment in UK infrastructure, and mega-project clients firmly placing equality, diversity and inclusivity onto the table as a must-have requirement, the conditions are perfect for a step change in gender balance in the industry.

So my message on International Women’s Day and parity? Let each of us play our part in improving the gender imbalance; constructively challenge unconscious bias when you see it, make small changes wherever you can to improve working environments, such as our new female PPE, and, most of all, shine a light on success. Parity is possible …don’t keep it a secret.

Nadia Savage is project director at Laing O’Rourke

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