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Construction women who break the mould

Three senior women discuss how they made it in a male-dominated construction world

It wasn’t so long ago that an employer could refuse to hire a woman just for being female. It may be shocking in today’s workplace but is clearly reflected in the lack of women in senior roles in construction and across all industries.

Married women may have been expected to stay at home with the children in the 1970s and a career in construction or engineering was almost unheard of. But some did prevail and are now at the top of their professions, something which could now help to attract others to the industry.

Breaking barriers

For Jean Venables, president of the Institution of Civil Engineers – and its first female in the role – it was a very different world.

“I couldn’t dine in certain clubs. For example, the Athenaeum in London wouldn’t allow women through the front door and you had to eat separately in the ladies’ annex,” she says.

Ms Venables’ headteacher drummed into her that civil engineering wasn’t for girls. “It wasn’t until I got to university that I discovered she was right,” she says. She was the only woman in a year of 60 students. But clearly she has always been determined. “There have always been people all the way through saying ‘you can’t do that, you are a woman’, but that usually elicited the response ‘I jolly well can.’

“I started work before the Sex Discrimination Act and it was really a case of standing your ground,” she says.

Ms Venables felt she also had to prove herself in more recent years, once she became chair of the Thames Region Flood Defence Committee.

“I think there was a certain amount of concern about whether I could deal with the responsibilities that went with it. I was the first woman – and the first engineer – to do it. That part was almost more important. So I broke the mould.” She was re-elected twice and in 2004 was awarded an OBE for her services.

She and her husband, Professor Roger Venables, met at university and made it their policy to only join organisations which would accept women on equal terms to men. They run consultancy Crane Environmental together.

Ms Venables says: “It’s quite an unusual situation but it works; it is very much a partnership of equals.”

For Liz Plumb, a director at Atkins’ rail control and systems division, life was similarly tough. After graduating from Cambridge, she applied to 40 companies for a job.

“I only got replies from about 10 and five of those were to say they didn’t employ women engineers. But I didn’t lose sight because those five were probably the best in the country,” she says. She started as an engineering-sponsored student with British Rail in 1979.

“British Rail was really quite determined to promote women in the industry. It was part of a Government drive as equal opportunities was about to be brought in,” she says.

But she adds that the men’s attitudes were almost of disbelief.

“They didn’t find me a threat because they didn’t completely believe that I might go on to be a senior person, or would last,” she says.

Gender challenge

She also says men who may have had her as a boss may have found it hard to deal with. “It may have been more of a challenge for my colleagues. But they got used to the idea. Now it’s not about men or women, it’s a team. I think the first time British Rail appointed me as a line manager it was quite a big challenge for them.”

Liz Jenkins is chair of construction law firm Shadbolt, starting at the firm when it was founded in 1991. She has risen to the top of her profession and has had four children along the way. While law has less of a problem in terms of male/female balance, she agrees that men have found it difficult working for a woman.

“You’ve got to be very careful you don’t end up sounding like someone’s mother or a bossy nag. It just doesn’t always feel that comfortable,” she says. She also feels that getting older can help in terms of being respected and listened to.

Ms Jenkins feels that while the construction industry has gone some way to welcome women, more can be done. “There is a real need to change. I have brought it up in meetings but people have been vaguely sheepish about it,” she says. She adds that all her clients are male.

“The HR directors or in-house lawyers might be female. But I think it’s a huge issue in the industry. It is not just male/female, it is white male.”


What does a typical day involve?

There isn’t really such a thing. One day I could be heading off to inspect flood defences in London and the next I could be hosting a member’s breakfast meeting in Northern Ireland – or New Zealand.

What do you think the biggest challenge will be for the industry over the next 10 years?

One of the biggest will be to persuade Government to continue investing in infrastructure and ensure that long-term projects aren’t delayed or scrapped. Such projects will provide invaluable assistance to British industry, securing jobs and putting it in a position to take advantage of a period of renewed growth.

What has been the hardest thing you have had to do so far?

One of the most challenging periods was as Chair of the Regional Flood Defence Committee. There were some who didn’t think I was the right person for the job so I worked hard to prove them wrong.

How might get better leaders into construction?

We already have many excellent leaders, but we must continue to work with children and young adults to encourage them to study maths and science and demonstrate what a rewarding career a person can have.

How could you do your job better?

Have an extra day in the week!