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Diversity: Striking a balance

gender balance

To mark International Women in Engineering Day 2018 on 23 June, GE has joined forces with the Federation of Piling Specialists to look at how well the ground engineering industry is doing to support careers of female engineers.

How to encourage mor ewomen into construction has long been debated, with almost everyone having an opinion. But understanding the career pathways of those women already working successfully within the sector is often overlooked. The ground engineering industry has often been recognised as attracting a higher proportion of women than other civil engineering sectors. But why is this, and what are the experiences of these women?

The Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS) has taken a proactive approach in encouraging more women into its sector and is seeking to understand what obstacles they face, with the aim of addressing them. To gain greater understanding, the FPS recently canvassed successful women working within the geotechnical sector about their own unique experiences, as well as seeking their views on making itmore accessible to women.

The route into piling for the women surveyed varied enormously, as did their experiences along the way.

The case for targets

Respondents were asked about their thoughts on setting targets for the number of women, as well as BAME, staff on projects. The majority were against setting targets, feeling that an individual’s ability is what should define selection. However, it was not unanimous with some compelling thoughts for using it as an option.

“I am extremely passionate about this and believe in equality throughout the industry, and targets would help improve this,” says JLR Civil Engineering pre-construction director Adele Arnold.

Expanded Geotechnical commercial lead Hannah Warburton adds: “While I believe it is important to review the diversity of project teams, I feel that more could be done through schools, organisations and government to address some of the factors that may be potentially influencing people’s interest and perception of the industry.”

Bauer Technologies project engineer Marina Andrade-Silva is not a fan of targets: “I don’t believe that it is a good thing. Women and men need to prove their capability on a project, rather than being imposed by a quota.”

Bachy Soletanche senior contract engineer Ruth Webster agrees: “I think that if you’re the right person for the job, then it shouldn’t matter what your background is. There is a danger of it becoming a tick-box exercise. As an industry we should be encouraging all genders, all ages and all ethnicities to get involved – all on an equal footing.”

Bam Ritchies geotechnical engineer Emily Wood had quite a cosmopolitan route, studying at multiple European universities as part of her MSc degree. 

“This was a bit of a culture shock, but one of the most rewarding experiences, meeting people from all different walks of life but with the same common interest in the geotechnical industry,” she said.

Wood also feels that there are fewer obstacles today than previously. “Perceptions have shifted and are and generally shifting for the better,”she added.

The route into piling for BauerTechnologies project engineer Marina Andrade-Silva was less easy though. “It takes time to prove to men that you can be as good as them and that you have your place on a jobsite,” she says.

Working hours

working hours

working hours

The impact of working practice issues, such as working hours and shift patterns, were covered by the survey. Almost all respondents cited this as an issue to a greater or lesser degree and some employers were trying to assist where possible.

Bachy Soletanche project manager Sophie Vicard says: “As site-based project manager, we are often working long hours – between 10 to 12 hours per day. The environment is essential to be able to enjoy working properly but as we are moving from site to site, commuting time can also be relatively important. It can be sometimes difficult during the week to find time to spend on other activities.”

Bauer Technologies graduate engineer Laylee Eftekhar adds: “Working hours can be considered long, particularly when working on site, but I believe employers also take the wellbeing of their staff into account when it comes to shift patterns and travel

JLR Civil Engineering general manager Yvonne Ainsworth believes that we are all working too many hours. “Even if working a ‘normal’ 10 hour shift, with commute this easily turns into 12 hours being away from home, this is a long time if you want to have a social life,” she says. “If you have to work away from home and you travel to work on Monday morning and back again on Friday night, you will lose additional hours due to exhaustion/tiredness, leaving even less time for your private life.

“Young people can more easily cope with this but as you get older, your priorities change, which in my opinion, means that more and more people leave the construction industry with long hours in favour for more office-based work and more spare time.”

Andrade-Silva also encountered more than her fair share of what she calls “men’s behaviour towards women on site” that is clearly different to what would be seen in today’s office environment.

“Sexist remarks or jokes,” she explains, as an example. “Also as awoman, I believe that at some stage we will have to choose between working on site and having a family, as working hours are nowhere near compatible with family duties.”

Laing O’Rourke specialist plant product leader Tracy Westerby’s route was far more typical. “I went to university to study civil engineering, completed work experience for Laing O’Rourke and started working for the company, post-graduation,” she says.

Westerby does not feel the challenges for women were necessarily gender-based. “Anyone choosing a site based career in construction will have to consider certain challenges,” she explains. “I don’t believe they are necessarily gender-specific, but often the location of projects requires you to work away from home and family presenting each individual with having to consider their work-life balance.”

JRL Civil Engineering general manager Yvonne Ainsworth has a more pragmatic view.“I’m not sure if the route was easy or not. It was the one I wanted to take and so I did,” she says.

“I believe that initially, there aren’t any obstacles. If someone is good at their job, they will earn the respect of their peers, regardless of their gender, religious belief or sexual orientation.”

Nonetheless, she has similar concerns to Andrade-Silva about balancing work with family life. “As life and careers progress, I feel that the piling industry is very unaccommodating to flexible working hours which come as a necessity when one starts a family,” she adds.

All the respondents felt that getting more women into construction, regardless of sector was important as it would create more role models, which in itself would make construction more appealing.

Wood adds: “If we want to encourage a more diverse work force in the construction industry, we need to start targeting school pupils at Key Stage 3 level [age 11 to 15]. By the time pupils sit GCSE examinations, many have ruled out certain industries. The die is cast. When I was at school I didn’t realise there were jobs like mine out there.”

The good, the bad and the ugly

good, bad and ugly

good, bad and ugly

“No two projects are ever the same, so there’s always an opportunity to learn something new in different teams.”

“Construction is still described as a man’s field. It is not rare to be the only woman during a meeting. It is also recognised that women have to prove more than men their ability to manage and their competency.”

“Working in construction gives a variety to your career that you are not always able to achieve in other sectors or industries.”

“The inherent sexism of the industry and outdated stereotypes of what is a man’s job and what is a woman’s job doesn’t help. This needs to change. Young people, especially women, should be aware of all the opportunities available to them and encouraged to join in.”

“Accepting employees from different walks of life is important. I work in construction and my degree was in music and transferrable skills must be taken in to account.”

“It’s a workplace where no two days are the same, you will constantly be kept on your toes and faced with new challenges.”

“I can’t see myself doing anything else, or particularly want to.”

 “I like that every job really is different because of ground conditions and techniques.”

Westerby shares this view: “There are many successful women in our industry who have reached their positions through different routes. Business, education and government need to work together to inspire women and communicate the career paths available.

“This will show the diverse options that people can take, whether it is straight from school or university, as part of a career change later in life or returning to work after a career or family break.

”In addition to the need for more support and encouragement early on, Ainsworth also calls on the construction industry to examine working practices that seem to exclude women.

”I do believe that the industry needs to look seriously at working hours,” she adds. “People want a work/life balance, which is incredibly hard to achieve in piling and construction.”

Summing up the feedback from the survey, FPS chairman Alasdair Henderson says: “It is clear from these,and the many other comments we have received, that the construction industry still has a very long way to go to become a properly inclusive environment.

“Many of the obvious public obstacles are being broken down, but there is still much to be done with the culture behind the scenes.

box 3 good, bad and ugly

box 3 good, bad and ugly

The challenges are becoming less gender specific

“Addressing unconscious bias issues such as exclusive male networks,  job role design, access to opportunities for promotion, working hours and working practices – all these present barriers that deter women from entering the construction sector,” he adds.

“In fact, any progress made on the whole work-life balance and industry working practices would be welcome by all genders.

“Gender diversity is known to have a highly beneficial effect on operating culture, trust and the quality of decision-making, something of which the industry has great need.

”Given the ever-present and growing problem of skill shortages, recruiting more women is an opportunity to improve that construction cannot afford to overlook.”

Team Patch director John Patch adds: “For the majority of businesses,the maximisation of profitability and shareholder value is crucial. It therefore stands to reason that the best talent should be attracted to any organisation irrespective of gender.”

“On the ground, the industry must take a more holistic approach, tackling the issue from all angles and that might mean taking a long hard look at the way we work and not just to the many initiatives designed to tackle inclusivity. Successfully dealing with this issue willnot just improve career opportunities forwomen but will benefit everyone.” 

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