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National Conference for Executive Secretaries and Personal Assistants
Paper by Sandi Rhys Jones, OBE

Innovation, motivation and self-preservation









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It was ‘self-preservation’ that caught my eye when I was sent the brief for delivering the keynote address. Have I been asked because I work in construction - that industry seen as dirty, dangerous and dominated by men?

Or is it because I have managed to run a consultancy, with my husband, for 26 years, as well as producing three sons – and apparently appear to be reasonably sane?

Whatever the reason, I am delighted to be here at this inaugural national conference and hope that by sharing some of my perceptions and experiences, I can contribute to making this event useful and enjoyable.



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I will start with motivation, rather than innovation, simply because most women working in construction are asked why on earth they are doing it. It is an industry with the highest rates of accidents and injury. Construction is at the top of the table for fatal accidents and injury. It is the industry with the lowest representation of women. In 1997/98 there were 86 fatalities, including six members of the public, and 4,672 major injuries. The industry accounts for 40% of all Health and Safety Executive enforcement actions. The issue of long term ill-health is also a concern – every year 700 construction workers die from asbestos related illness and there are 30,000 cases of musculo-skeletal injury.

Construction’s performance in equal opportunities is also behind other industries. It has the lowest representation of women and black and ethnic minority people than any other UK industry. Although women make up 50% of the workforce, less than 10% of the construction industry is female – about 5% administration and support, 3.4% construction professions and 1% craft and trades.

When I started in the industry as a journalist more than 30 years ago, I was certainly in the minority as a woman. But the issue of women in construction is more than a matter of personal circumstance. We have an industry known, if not infamous for its poor performance, aggressive culture and resistance to change.

So why does anybody work in construction, let alone women? Essentially because at its best, construction is an exciting, challenging and rewarding industry peopled by creative, determined, tenacious and committed individuals. Quite simply it is an immensely exciting, rewarding and varied career, whatever your role.

Construction provides the fundamental necessities for human existence. Women and men alike require shelter, water, transport, power. The role of women in all aspects of human endeavour and survival is undisputed but they are noticeable by their absence in the key activity of construction. Women traditionally are expected to be homemakers – why not housebuilders? We’re supposed to be peacemakers, why not bridge builders?

And there are women doing just that. We may be a small percentage, but in an industry employing some 1.4 million people, even 3.4% is more than a handful. The reasons women join the industry are varied, but to give one example: Helen Stone was taken for a drive on the newly opened M1 as a child and as a result made up her mind that she wanted to build roads. So she did, became a highly regarded civil engineer, was awarded OBE two years ago for her work for women in the industry, has run a major consulting firm and is a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Other women working in construction ‘on the tools’ – carpenters, plumbers, painters and decorators etc want an interesting, creative job that gives them independence and a sense of achievement.

Imagine the buzz from being part of a team negotiating land purchase for a housing development like Charmaine Young of St George plc or running a quarry – like Paula Betts of Tarmac Heavy Products. I was for two years a Non-Executive Director of the Docklands Light Railway and quite apart from the exciting engineering achievement of tunnelling under the Thames and building elevated tracks through exciting buildings like Canary Wharf, there was a tremendous sense of achievement in seeing how the provision of safe and accessible transportation can contribute to the health, wellbeing and regeneration of communities.

And what a sense of satisfaction there must be if you have been involved, in any way, with the construction of an exciting building or providing water or power to people in remote places.



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Being taken seriously as a woman in construction demand an innovative approach to career planning. After all, construction is the industry that designs and installs those glass ceilings. But many women take the view that being in the minority can be a distinct advantage – at least you get remembered.

Many women in construction become very entrepreneurial – often because that is simply the only way to get work! Many start their own companies. One carpenter I know finally managed to get a job as with a kitchen cabinet company and after a few weeks offered to do the deliveries. She made a point of introducing herself, made it known to the rather surprised customers hat she was actually building the units and within a very short time built a successful business employing a number of men.

And when it comes to technical innovation, imagine the wow factor for architect Julia Barfield’s amazing London Eye (for which she was awarded the MBE). Not only is it a wonderful design concept, , but the structural engineering for it was also designed by a woman, Jane Wernick. Both run their own companies, Julia has young children.

Barbara Jones is another innovative woman. A builder and roofer who began her firm Hilda’s Builders in London a few years ago, she then went to Yorkshire to form Amazon Nails and has developed a worldwide reputation for building innovative, environmentally friendly and cheap houses out of straw bales.



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Make the most of yourself. Think out of the box to identify the particular skills and attributes you can develop to add value to what you do and which can make that all-important difference to your career. I was talking the other day to people who have developed teams to work on demanding projects and asked them what attributes they sought in a Personal Assistant or Executive Secretary.

Here are some of their comments:
protective, anticipative, recognising the need for disciplines and structures but able to work imaginatively and effectively within them, having the ability to make things happen – seamlessly.

As part of my work for an international engineering federation, I spent a lot of time working on contract committees with engineers from around the world, which develop my communications skills to facilitate multi-national meetings. As I became more involved, the next stumbling block seemed to be the legal element of the work – so I decided that the way to overcome it was to study law. So I spent the next two years studying the MSc course construction law & arbitration at King’s College London, four evenings a week every fortnight.

As a result of that course, not only did I develop a legal awareness, but I also acquired a new client in the first week (for whom I am still working, ten years on) and knowledge and contacts to open new doors.

But what can be very difficult for women is finding the right work-life balance, so there is a need to work out realistically what you want and need in your working life and then set about trying to find the career and life-style that will deliver it. This can take confidence – another problem for many women.

There is one particular word that is banned in my meetings and presentations – the word ‘only’ – as in, “We’ve got a woman in our company but she’s only a secretary/an accountant/a painter and decorator.” Nobody should be classified as ‘only’ - that is the route to the camouflage technique of survival which is not as safe as it might seem.

Networking is important, so attend meetings, join clubs, take an interest in what others do in the organisation. Speak up if you have something to say, establish yourself.

There’s a lot more talk about customer focus in construction and business generally. But let us remember that the customer isn’t always someone else. Times have changed and today, women are often the decision makers. In today’s markets, women are often the customer. In today’s world, white males are not the only successful business people.

You and I are customers too – we deserve respect and support.

I looked up keynote to find that it’s the lowest note of the scale. That is, forming the basis of, and giving its name to the key. That sounds rather dull, only enlivened by the thought that if the keynote is the lowest note, the rest of the day can only get better.

But then I spotted that the keynote is also called the tonic, so that’s what I hope to set out to do, refreshing the parts that others may not reach today and hopefully putting some fizz into the morning.

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