News & Views

Women in Piling

Encouraging more women into construction has long been debated, with almost everyone having an opinion, but understanding the career pathways of those women working successfully within the sector is often overlooked. The Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS) has always been proactive in encouraging more women into its sector and is seeking to understand what obstacles there are, with the aim of addressing them. In pursuit of gaining a greater understanding, the FPS recently canvassed numerous successful women working within the geotechnical sector of their own unique experiences, as well as their suggestions to make the construction sector more accessible to women. Some of their experiences and thoughts are presented here.

The route into piling of those women spoken to varied enormously, as did their experiences along the way. Emily Wood, a geotechnical engineer working for BAM Ritchies, had quite a cosmopolitan route, studying at multiple European universities as part of her Masters degree. She commented that, “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.” Emily felt that there are “fewer obstacles today than previously. Perceptions have shifted and are and generally shifting for the better.”

The route into piling for Marina Andrade-Silva, Project Engineer for Bauer Technologies, was less easy though discovering that “…It takes time to prove to men that you can be as good as them and that you have your place on a jobsite.” Marina also encountered more than her fair share of what she calls “Men’s behaviour towards women on site” clearly differentiating that behaviour from what would be seen today in an office environment. She highlights “…sexist remarks or jokes and long hours. As a woman, I believe that at some stage we will have to choose between working on site and having a family too, as working hours are nowhere near compatible with family duties.”
For Tracy Westerby, Specialist Plant Product Leader at Laing O’Rourke, her 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.”

Tracy also didn’t feel the challenges for women were necessarily gender-based commenting, “Anyone choosing a site-based career in construction will have to consider certain challenges. 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.”

Yvonne Ainsworth, General Manager at JRL Civil Engineering, has a more pragmatic view of her experiences of navigating her way through her career in the construction sector. She said: “I’m not sure if the route was easy or not, it was the one I wanted to take and so I did.” In fact, Yvonne added, “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, but she did add the caveat, mirroring Marina’s comment, “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.”

All 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. Emily Wood stated, “If we want to encourage a more diverse work force in the construction industry, we need to start targeting school pupils at Stage 3 level. 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.”

Tracy Westerby shared this view adding, “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.”

Yvonne, in addition to the need for more support and encouragement early on, also calls on the construction industry to examine its working practices that seem to exclude women. For example, Yvonne said “I do believe that the industry needs to look seriously at working hours. People want a work / life balance, which is incredibly hard to achieve in piling/construction.”

Summing up the feedback from the many women canvassed during this exercise Alasdair Henderson, Chair FPS said, “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. 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. In fact, any progress made on the whole work-life balance and industry working practices would be welcome by all genders.”

Henderson continued, “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.” John Patch of Team Patch put it well “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, we need to 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. I am optimistic for the future and confident we can tackle this issue, but not just for women – for the benefit of all!

The Case for Targets

The question was asked about each’s thoughts on setting targets for the number of women and BAME staff on projects. The majority of women who responded 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, as well as projects and targets would help improve this.” Adele Arnold, Pre-Construction Director, JRL Civil Engineering

“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.“ Hannah Warburton, Commercial Lead, Expanded Geotechnical

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

“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.” Ruth Webster, Senior Contract Engineer, Bachy Soletanche

Working Hours

Of the many questions asked, either directly or indirectly, the issues of working practises, such as working hours, shift patterns, etc., were raised. Almost all respondents cited this as an issue to a greater or lesser degree, and some employers were trying to assist where possible. Comments included:

“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 (team building, network…). Also, as we are working 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.” Sophie Vicard, Project Manager, Bachy Soletanche

“Within the industry, 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.” Laylee Eftekhar, Graduate Engineer, Bauer Technologies

“We work too many hours. Fact. Even if working a ‘normal’ 10hrs shift, with commute this easily turns into 12hrs being away from home. This is a long time if you want to have a social life. 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.” Yvonne Ainsworth, General Manager, JRL Civil Engineering

Working in Construction – The Good, The Bad & the 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. I work in construction and my degree was in Music. 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.”