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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.