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Greater flexibility is the key

Survey reveals that flexible working would make the biggest difference to women

More flexible working is the single biggest thing that would improve women’s working lives, according to an independent survey commissioned by Construction News.

When asked what changes would improve their working lives in the built environment, nearly two thirds spontaneously said that more flexible employment would make the biggest difference.

Responses mentioned working from home, more maternity leave, childcare provision and performance based on quality of work rather than hours worked.

“Working in contracting, it can be a challenge balancing home and work, particularly ensuring I don’t miss out on my children’s key events,” one woman said.

In another independent study, commissioned by Atkins, more than two thirds of employees felt that flexible working was important, very important or increasingly important for recruitment and retention purposes, for all industries.

And it probably does not come as much of a surprise, but nearly a third of women in the built environment think that offering flexible working is very important for attracting and retaining staff - but only five per cent of men agree.

Need to change

Alun Griffiths, group human resources director for Atkins, says we as a sector must change.

“We are in a changing world. The people have different attitudes and aspirations to 20 years ago. They are probably helped by the fact that the western world has a shortage of skills and that combination is a powerful driver for change.

“Organisations have been a bit less flexible and fun. The important word is flexible - people’s needs are quite different, they are individuals. What really matters is being responsive,” he says.

Mr Griffiths feels that the attitude to flexible working needs to be positive. “When you speak to line managers they can say that all this is a bit difficult. You can give someone lots of process and procedure but adapt as you need to have a bit of give and take. We are trying to get into the organisation for people to say ‘how I can accommodate this?’ rather than be frustrated by it,” he says.

The big issue for women with families seems to be career progression. One woman who answered the CN survey said: “If you don’t want to move house, you have to work away Monday to Friday.

“This seems to work for men, but society thinks that women who are away are bad mothers and most of us don’t want to do it. As a result, we don’t get promoted to director level because we don’t want to live in hotel rooms.”

While this feeling undoubtedly exists, Mr Griffiths believes that more women should speak up. “I don’t think they should worry about career progression, but I think they do. People feel because they put fewer hours in they can’t progress. But what they have to do is look beyond the hours.”

Atkins is keen to encourage role models which other women can emulate. Anne Kemp is 45 and has three children. She is now head of geospatial business at the firm and her hours have varied from two to four days a week. But she says it hasn’t been easy.

“Working part time can only be successful by being pragmatic, by having a good deal of patience and a sense of humour,” she says.

“Flexible working is about give and take. You have to accept that you cannot get involved with-critical projects and bids all the time. It is -difficult to be at the coal face when you are not there every day.

“But what you can do successfully is provide leadership and manage projects that are not so time sensitive,” she adds.

And women are better time managers anyway, according to Mr Griffiths.

“Women are far better at multi-tasking, they’ve thought it through and have probably worried about how this is going to work,” he says.

“They also understand the impact on them. Almost all those I’ve come across are absolutely committed.”