During my 14 years as an architectural lighting designer I’ve worked within a stand-alone lighting consultancy, a luminaire manufacturer and an M&E consultancy; on both small to large scale and multi-million pound schemes. I’ve become accustomed to being a minority, this shouldn’t be the case. I’d like to hopefully set an agenda for change in the hope of making this situation obsolete.
Considering my personal experiences, those of my colleagues and my peers I’m sorry to say that, like many industries, our experience of the industry as women has and unfortunately continues to differ greatly from that of our male colleagues. Whilst our industry has done a solid job of appearing to become more aware of the inadequacies faced by women within our sector; we talk the talk, tick the boxes and publish our equality statements, but we haven’t delivered the fundamental change required.
Whilst we’ve registered this as being a problem, we haven’t really asked ourselves the real questions to prompt change, or prepared ourselves to proactively address the answers.
“Why aren’t we women moving up the ranks?, “Why aren’t women being given or taking the chance to work as a site manager, senior electrician, lead civil engineer, construction director or partner?” Why do we feel like imposters within a sector where we are as qualified and competent as our male peers? Is it because we might become a mother? Because we are mothers?”, “we’re not emotionally strong enough to deal with the demands of the job?”.
These are all questions we need to discuss and soon. It’s the real answers to these questions that will inform equality in our short term and long term plansand really start to turn this situation around.
In terms of where we focus our efforts I think this starts with our newest generation. We need to support our apprentices, graduates and young recruits. I’d like to think that we’re now raising and mentoring generations of young adults who do believe in equality of the sexes. They won’t stand for anything less and credit to them. I think that due to their influence we’re now listening more. As seniors in this industry our role is to support these principles, creating permission and frameworks to encourage our team to speak-up and equip them to deal with sexist or unfair situations. We should be doubling our efforts for females entering our sector, preparing them to adequately manage their experiences and needs now as a minority, might be the best way to make them part of the majority.
Many don’t know how to or feel they can approach their seniors when they feel uncomfortable or undermined, perhaps feeling they should expect this as part of a male-dominated profession. “Don’t raise your head above the parapet, don’t make an issue of it, it’ll make it worse”.
I myself experienced this when a younger, female member of my team hesitated in talking me through the snagging survey she’d completed on site. It was her first on her own, after a year or so with our team. I knew something wasn’t right and only after asking her what she was holding-back did I find out that she’d been talked to inappropriately and made extremely uncomfortable by the contractor assigned to guide her around the site. As a credit to our ability to respond once the situation was flagged with the head of the contractor team and they dealt with the situation quickly.
Unfortunately this isn’t a male-only issue. When it comes to being an ally for women we females can let each other down too I have a particularly painful memory from my late 20s when tasked within presenting a lighting design to the full design team. The meeting was led by the project manager, a lady in her early 50s. I completed my presentation, answered questions for the team, went to return to my seat and was praised by the PM in front of the team with the patronising phrase “good girl” as I sat down. I had done well, I was feeling confident; that throw-away comment completely knocked the wind out of my sails and I felt it had belittled my offering to the project. Worst still, this came from someone I had hoped understood my experiences and was on my side.
In summary, as employers we need to tune-in to the role gender bias plays in our sector across the spectrum. We need to make it clear that we know that it happens and encourage our teams to stay true to their principles. Let them know that they can voice their concerns when needed without thinking this might harm their career prospects. Let them know we’re there to listen and keep asking when we feel they’re holding back.
Fundamentally we need to change our mindset. Recruit and promote based on the CV and personality, not on gender, and recognising that unconscious biases might be in play. Try and remove names and genders from CV’s and see how this impacts on the gender split of people you ask to interview. You may find you interview and promote both female and other diverse candidates. This in-turn will only change and enrich the dynamic of our companies and move us into a position where we need to be. Women can help make your company better.
By 2020 it is estimated that 26% of construction sector jobs will be occupied by women, yet only 60% of construction employers have promoted women to senior roles since 2013 (www.Randstad.co.uk – Female Leadership – where are construction industry role models? 19.01.19). We are half the construction sector workforce and this should be reflected across the spans and layers of our industry.
So I’m asking you all to commit to make just one change from today. Employ just one of the principles I’ve mentioned above to your workplace. Help us to become a truly diverse sector.
We all look forward to never having to ask why you don’t see more women succeed in construction again.
Faye has been working within the construction industry for 15 years. She originally trained as a theatre designer and then went on to UCL to complete a masters in architectural lighting design. She has been leading the design team at enigma lighting for 3 years now. She believes in giving back to the next generation of women coming into the construction industry through mentoring, coaching and generally being approachable to anyone who needs support.