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Careers: Learning by example

Understanding how female industry leaders got to where they are can help the rest of the sector gain insight that is key to improving the appeal of a construction career to other women

The construction sector has never been more welcoming to women than it is today but, still by every measure available, they are still under represented. In fact, many estimates suggest women account for just 11% of the entire industry workforce and just 1% work on site.

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This is a situation that must be addressed if the construction sector is serious about doing something about the already present issue of skill shortages.

Nonetheless, there is some good news, global HR services firm Randstad predicts that women will make up a quarter of the UK’s construction workforce by 2020, and that significant on-going progress is being made in encouraging women into construction.

The construction industry is vast and each sector within it has to make changes to improve diversity and inclusivity. The geotechnical drilling sector has made considerable progress and has put in place many initiatives to make it more appealing to women and it is having an impact, but the sector can also learn much from those women already working successfully within it.

Three very successful women present their experiences of working within the drilling sector, highlighting individual career pathways and a perspective of their working lives. The three successful women are Raeburn Drilling & Geotechnical CEO and director Anne Baxter who is also current chair of the British Drilling Association; Structural Soils senior engineering geologist Natalie Bews; and Socotec operations director of the ground investigation division Clare Chapman.

Family support

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Anne Baxter is CEO and director of Raeburn Drilling & Geotechnical and is also current chair of the British Drilling Association

Baxter initially chose civil engineering as a career before specialising in geology, as this was her primary interest.

“I was not encouraged at school to pursue a career in construction, rather it was my family that supported the idea,” she said. “After undertaking a BSc (Hons) I began my career with Whatlings Foundations, before starting Terra Tek along with two others after a management buy-out.

“It was logical then for me to undertake an MPhil in engineering geology while working; I had great support from the managing director to progress and develop and was supported to undertake an MBA as well.

“For young women thinking of a career in drilling or construction I would say have no reservations, just make sure you have the right qualifications for the career you have in mind and certainly a driving licence.

“If a young woman has an interest in construction there are plenty of opportunities today for further education and job opportunity.”

Baxter also believes the construction sector has moved on in recent years, shedding its “boys club” image making it far more attractive to women. She added: “…the focus on large prestigious infrastructure projects, which are in evidence all over the UK does, I believe, shows construction in a good light. The opportunity to travel around the UK, interacting with a wide range of companies involved in construction, the sense of achievement on completion of a project and the fact that every day produces some new issue or opportunity, all adds to its appeal.”

Major projects

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Natalie Bews is senior engineering geologist with Structural Soils

Bews’ route through construction was not that dissimilar to Baxter’s being as varied as it was challenging.

“My current role is sales-orientated, taking into account marketing and business development, but by trade I am an engineering geologist, having graduated with an applied geology degree,” explains Bews. “On graduation, I was employed by Soil Engineering Geoservices (formerly Norwest Holst Soil Engineering) as an assistant engineering geologist, working my way up through the ranks eventually project managing multifaceted ground investigations projects valued in excess of £1M.

“I would say running the Cashel bypass ground investigation in Southern Ireland was the pinnacle of my engineering career, and it was at this point I decided I needed a change of direction, in particular, I no longer wanted to ‘live out of a bag’.

“I moved to the business development department of Soil Engineering assisting the business development manager. My role included writing the technical proposals and submissions that accompanied tender prices and bids, as well as direct marketing through customer engagement and development of the company brand.

“Marketing, business development and sales are now the career path I firmly tread and love equally as much as my field engineering days. In my current position with Structural Soils, I am responsible for ensuring that the business maintains its position within the industry and receives sufficient tender opportunities to achieve turnover with profit and growth year on year, as well as seeking out new business streams and directions for the company to grow within.”

Bews did not really choose construction as a career, it sort of chose her. “I almost fell into it after graduating,” she says. “I knew I loved geology and initially thought a career in palaeontology was for me, as this called to my creative side; however, I thought this career path would be quite restrictive, confined and perhaps a little too refined for me.

“I needed to be more free, unrestrained and able to be whole lot more expressive! The great outdoors, drilling rigs and contracting industry were calling me. The site works, the ever-changing scenery, the challenge of programmes and deliverables, the diverse and challenging geology of the UK and being involved with the geotechnical investigations for the development of projects of local and national importance excited me.

“To be involved with the building of a new nuclear power station, the London underground system, motorways, docks, harbours, canals, reservoirs, iconic buildings, secret buildings and renewable and sustainable energy sources, is what I like. This is what makes me get out of bed in the morning.”

Although school did not encourage Bews to consider construction as a career directly, it supported her choices, which was equally important. “I was encouraged to do whatever interested me and what I enjoyed,” she says. “I only took up geology in the upper sixth form as a fall back after dropping out of economics and accounts. I enjoyed both human and physical geography, so geology was a natural progression and extension of that. There is no gender differential in either geography or geology, and neither of these were seen as subjects for the boys, although they were male dominated. The same can be said for the degree course.”

“I cannot recall there being any gender-based obstacles at any point from school to college, all the way through to my current position. I think that gender-based obstacles are actually more a manifestation of a person’s own personality and gender paranoia. Personally, I have never encountered any problems or issues with being a woman in engineering.

“For any woman thinking of entering construction I would say go for it! It is a great career and a fantastic industry to work in. Be clear of where you want to go, keep your eye on the target, stay motivated and achieve your goals through hard work, dedication and commitment. I cannot think of better rewards for one’s efforts than achieving career aspirations and goals. The drilling industry has certainly afforded me this so far.”

Bews has clear views on how to encourage more women into construction. “I do not think there is a need to differentiate or make it easier for women to enter the industry,” she says. “Why does it need to be easier? Are women less able than men? Absolutely not!

“What needs to be done is more positive promotion of women in industry, so women know that there is a place for them and that they would indeed be welcomed on an equal playing field. More can be done at in the home, before school even, by creating an environment that is not gender specific and where children are encouraged to be who and what they want to be and feel most comfortable doing/being.

“All too often little girls are given gender-specific toys, dolls, make up, fashion accessories, toy kitchens: all the toys that would promote a subliminal imprinting that they are a girl, a mother and a homemaker. I may be brandishing an all too big tar brush here! When I was five years old, I came to London on holiday. As a treat my sister and I were taken to Hamleys; we were very lucky and were told we could choose anything in the store. We both each chose a Tonka truck and dumper which we returned with to our home in Zimbabwe where we spent hours moving and redistributing stockpiles of rice and lentils, not to mention constructing and demolishing mud roadways, bridges and dams.

“I am not saying that the purchase of that yellow dumper truck caused me to be a geologist and enter the construction industry. Absolutely not. However, I am saying it does not matter if you are a girl or a boy, we all have dreams, goals, aspirations no matter what gender we are; we should not be aligned to a male/female path at birth or in infancy. Instead, we should be encouraged to follow whatever path we think will make us happy and fulfilled, whether that be a career in construction or otherwise.”

Bews still feels the construction industry has a perception problem. “From the outside, it probably does have some image issues, but I do not see that from within,” she explains. “I see brilliant engineers and businessmen and women doing great jobs within the UK and global construction industry. I see lots of people at the top of their tree, pushing boundaries, innovating and promoting best practice. I see a bright and brilliant future for UK and global engineering, built on foundations and ground improved by men and women alike.

“When the sun shines or the rain falls, there is always a rig turning. A sample of geology will be recovered and brought to surface that has not seen the light of day for millions of years, if ever. Being the first person in the world to see a fossil or a formation, and using that sample to understand the earth, its dynamics and how we as humans interact with it to build our homes, our businesses, our lives, our world into a better place – these are some of the things that make me smile every day, and these are the reasons I love geology and the drilling industry.”

On site learning

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Clare Chapman is operations director for ground investigation with Socotec

Socotec’s Chapman worked her way up through the ranks from geological technician to operations director, and is equally keen to encourage more women to consider a career in construction or more specifically the geotechnical sector.

“Fresh out of A levels, all I really knew was that I wanted to work outdoors,” she says. “With an interest in geology, I wanted to explore the world of employment and took my first job as geological technician. Unbeknown to me where I would end up at this stage, I would go on site daily for the first four years of my career to carry out tasks such as field testing, sampling and in situ testing.

“While I now manage the overall operations of dynamic probing, percussive window sampling, concrete coring, as well as rotary and cable percussion drilling, back then I was the one doing it!

“Like anyone starting out in their career, I had to demonstrate that I could do my job. Being a female technician, especially 30 years ago, there was the need to prove that being female did not hinder my abilities. It was important to pull my weight, and more, to make sure I wasn’t the weak link in the team.”

Of course, it wasn’t all plain sailing and Chapman is keen to point out the occasional bumps in the road. “In the geotechnical industry, it is not unheard of to overcome challenges and I’ve faced many in my career progression,” she adds. “Deciding I wanted to progress my career, I began to study for a degree in geology at the Open University; working and studying made for a long week of multi-tasking. When I moved jobs, as with any job changes, I had to adapt quickly to new site techniques, supervise subcontracted drillers and manage other members of staff which included engineers, technicians and administration staff.

“The transition to contract coordinator inspired me to enrol on a business studies and management course, leaving behind my geology degree. Even then, I was told that being a woman in the industry meant I would never obtain respect from the drillers or engineers or understand the capabilities of the business. The novelty of having a female boss soon waned though; my abilities for directing contracts, organising site activities, producing reports to meet client requirements and managing time were recognised. Plus, I’ve never been afraid to get my hands dirty.”

Now at the top of her profession Chapman’s role as operations director means looking after one of the biggest GI businesses in the UK. “I feel my achievements have been solely down to my abilities, attributes and determination being recognised, rather than my gender,” she says. “In my time, I’ve been able to empower others and embrace a team ethic. Getting females into science, technology, engineering and mathematics is one way of moving forwards to an equal gender industry.

“The construction and drilling industry is such an impressive industry to be a part of, as it’s incredibly satisfying to know that I have been involved in some of the most iconic buildings and developments in the UK.

“Through hard work and determination, I’ve been able to progress through the industry ladder. With experience in estimating, planning, resourcing, performing and managing site investigation work, at a range of sites including contaminated land, highways, airports, sewage treatment works, canals, MOD sites, gasworks and railways, it’s safe to say I now manage my teams having had full exposure to the reality of the industry, with first-hand technical experience.”

It is clear that great opportunities exist for women in the ground engineering industry and these experiences create great opportunities to demonstrate that to potential recruits – male and female. However, industry needs to take this message out to schools and colleges to ensure young people are aware of the options and potential a career in this sector presents.

 

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