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The way ahead for women

Last year’s Inspire winners reveal how they prosper in the man’s world of construction

Do women have to do anything differently to do well in construction? Are there any barriers to success, and is talking about it simply creating an unwelcome issue?

Whatever your opinion, the fact remains that in this industry, there are far fewer women than men. A male-dominated environment may be attractive to some, but it can put others off. Many women in senior positions - or on the way up - are keen to help other women find construction careers.

Jane Nelson’s rise through the ranks is remarkable. She was a trainee painter and decorator for Hackney Borough Council in 1985 and by 1999 was running its building maintenance division.

She is now managing director of Kier Building Maintenance (South), responsible for 1,000 staff and a budget of £120 million. She won the Inspirational Leader prize for construction at last year’s inaugural Inspire awards, organised by Construction News.

Ms Nelson credits part of her success to the men in the Hackney boardroom who pushed for her to go on training courses and says her overall experience of the industry has been very positive.

The challenge of leadership

She is still very much on the front line. She says: “It’s about taking your role seriously as a leader. I want my employees to inspire me and get me going. I get out of my office and go and speak to them. It is about getting through and engaging with people and trying to make a difference in some way.”

Ms Nelson adds that if there are barriers, it is about making the effort to remove them. This is backed up by the fact that Kier is the only construction firm in the Stonewall workplace equality index 2008 which lists the UK’s top 100 employers for gay people.

For Sarah Buck, the first female president of the Institution of Structural Engineers, doing well is about being clear about what you want in a male-dominated workplace, where the culture may be quite direct.

She says: “It’s a cultural thing. You have to be prepared for the male culture, but there are no barriers. You have to be clear about your aspirations. Don’t assume people know, be upfront.”

Ms Buck adds that if you have recently had a baby, there may be an assumption that you won’t want to push for promotion. So it is simply about making it clear that you do. As well as having a family, she runs her own engineering consultancy in Exeter.

Many of last year’s Inspire award winners and finalists felt that they were simply getting on with the job. Arpinder Bansi, a manager at Atkins Highways and winner of the Inspirational Leader award for civil engineering, says: “I don’t think I’m anything out of the ordinary. I do it to the best of my ability. You just get on and do it.”

The confidence to go forward

Ms Bansi also advises women not to be afraid to take risks. “Women want nine out of 10 things in place before they go forward with a project, but men might go ahead with only five things. It’s about confidence and getting senior management to think differently. Don’t assume anything - have a dialogue,” she says.

Challenging assumptions is important, according to Ms Bansi. She says: “If we have children we can make alternative arrangements - but we might not have been asked. It is not that obstacles are put in our way. Diversity is about giving people the option, it’s a mindset.”

So rather than battling for position, it is simply about making yourself clear. Alison Kilgour, project manager at property firm Elphinstone and an Inspire construction finalist, rejects the idea that women have to stand up for themselves more than men.

She says: “I am not big on the women being portrayed as the weaker sex who struggle for accept-ance or get paid less. I’m always asked if I’ve had difficulties to get where I am but I haven’t. Men have the same challenges, the daily problems of dealing with a project.”

Ms Kilgour also rejects the suggestion that pay could be an issue. “I’ll always stand up for myself. I’ve got a strong personality and I would always argue for what I’m worth. I won’t allow that to happen,” she says.

A cinderella story – engineering a panto

Arpinder Bansi is divisional manager at Atkins Highways, and winner of the Inspirational Leader award for civil engineering.

Ms Bansi advises women to “go for it” rather than dwelling on potential risks. She uses innovative techniques for personal development, for example team-building projects such as pantomime.

She says: “One of the age-old problems is that graduates want to fast-track into project management but senior managers are often reluctant because they see the pitfalls of their lack of experience.

“We employ a lot of technical staff who are not necessarily engineering graduates. I challenged them to stage a pantomime with a tight timescale and non-existent budget.

“This would test their abilities in organisation, project and performance management, finance, risk management, people development, staff motivation, recruitment (casting) and negotiation skills – everything a project manager needs to be capable of.

“The objective was for them to prove they had it in them and to demonstrate this to their managers. They experienced the real challenges of project management and have a better appreciation of the pressures their managers face.

“They came up trumps and performed the pantomime last March. From conception to delivery it took five months.”

Career tactics

Sarah Buck and Jane Wernick, who run their own companies, give their career tactics:

Ms Buck, the IStructE president, winner of outstanding achiever for civil engineering at the Inspire awards, and director of her own engineering firm, BSW Consulting, says:

• Quite often I would go to meetings and no one would come and sit next to me – perhaps because they thought the other men would tease them. So my tactic now is to go and sit next to someone myself.

• When on site, men sometimes assumed that if I was with another man that he was the boss. The quick way to get round that is to introduce him and explain that you are showing him around.

• Always have a business card with you and hand it out. It’s not about being pushy it’s just so that everyone knows who you are to start with and don’t confuse you with the PA.

• You can use it to your advantage to start with – there is novelty value with being the only woman there.

• I think engineering firms do have a flexible approach [to working hours, for example] you just have to ask for it.

Ms Wernick, director of Wernick Associates and winner of Outstanding Achiever for construction at the Inspire Awards, says:

• When I started I didn’t want to join a women’s only group, but it is helpful to have a mentor, or to talk to other women. Otherwise there can be a sense of loneliness.

• It has helped me to have a star project - the London Eye, but every project has really interesting things in it. It is important to be able to explain how things work.

• Just be quite passionate about what you do and enjoy it. Be open.

Down load the Women Into Science, Engineering and Construction directory of initiatives in the resource box on the bottom of the page. The WISE Directory of Initiatives is produced annually and lists sponsorship schemes, competitions, awards, courses, useful websites, visits, and other initiatives on offer to women - from open days at colleges to sponsorships. For more information see