We also asked her to discuss whether she felt it important for more women to be encouraged to seek a role in the construction industry.
I’m delighted to be a part of Construction news Women in Construction campaign to highlight successful women in construction across the UK. From a personal point of view, I’ve been empowered by some key people in both my professional and personal life – and I strongly believe that those two parts of one’s life are intertwined and mutually dependant.
The first person I would credit for inspiring me to believe in myself was my father. He never differentiated me or my sisters from my brother. He always taught us that there is no such word as ‘can’t’, and because of him I have an unwavering belief that it is the person inside that will make the difference, regardless of gender. Someone else who always made me think that a girl was as good as a boy was my mother. She taught me that the even the sky’s not the limit and said things like “even women can go into space, telling me I could be an astronaut when I grew up.”
Well, I’m not an astronaut, but a Chief Operating Officer for Vascroft Contractors Ltd where I joined the firm 9 years ago initially as a Finance Executive, I have found myself in what has traditionally been seen as a male dominated industry. I believe my gender should not really make a difference, but it has proven me wrong on occasions. Being in this industry has brought challenges but those challenges have helped me grow stronger. I’ve had to be more resilient and found I had to prove myself more.
Earlier on in my career in the 90s working for Bechtel Engineering Inc and Bae Systems, I was the only female accountant faced with a lot of male engineers who were not interested in the figures, but simply wanted funds for their projects and ensuring deliverance of their project was key. Faced with that, I had to learn how to find the right balance of assertiveness, get my point across and deliver my views effectively without being too cutthroat or bullish. I don’t believe that women should try to pretend to be men in the workplace. You have to be true to yourself and authentic useful skills that can bring a balance to the table.
Over the years I learned to listen and collaborate, but it’s been a steep learning curve. Of course, there have been hurdles but that’s how we learn and better ourselves. Life experiences are the best learning tools. In that moment it might seem negative, but something positive will come out of it, trust your instincts.
What I’ve learned on my journey to get to operating officer is that the people you meet along the way are your tools. When I was in my placement year during university as a trainee management accountant with a top law firm, the group FD, who was my mentor, inspired me to get the professional qualification, which is partly why I am doing what I do now. My CIMA qualification has allowed me to utilise key financial acumen with an understanding of how to apply to practical business situations enabling me to make sound decisions on operational matters relevant to our industry. Skills in project management, process improvement and change management over the years has helped make the transition into this role effective. I have been able to implement ISO qualifications for the company, steer groups to implement appropriate document management systems and infrastructure changes. The ability to listen and empower the team has made the task easier to implement strategic change in this role along with the regular site visits engaging with the operational teams and sharing lessons learned to improve the company’s efficiencies and quality.
Construction has been part of my life from a very young age. My father was an Ugandan Asian immigrant and started work as jobbing labourer in the 70s at the barbican towers with his younger brother and then successfully grew an established main contracting firm with over 42 years of construction experience hence have spent many childhood years at the back of a pickup and watching the way negotiations and contracts were awarded through to seeing finish builds. Oh how the industry has changed into being more formalised with health and safety and contractual documentation and accepting females into prominent roles in construction that can have an impact.
The industry continues to inspire me with the various technological changes that lie ahead. I am at awe at the engineering and the structural aspect of the build that is hidden underneath the fabric of the building. The carving of double triple basements and how propping initiatives are constantly evolving. The industry over the years has embraced how women in these fields have added value to a build. Construction companies are striving to improve on the gender parity and inclusion aspects and have come a long way to help balance historical gender inequality. There’s still work to do, starting from the home through to our education system so that both boys and girls are aware of creating an equal environment for their future. I believe the world is changing for the better and more opportunities for women in construction will be available for the next generation.
My advice to young women looking for a career in construction or business, and indeed my own daughters, is to never let your gender impede you. Face every task and go with a positive mindset. The journey there might take a while, but every day is a learning experience that sets you up for tomorrow. Be thick skinned, stand your ground pragmatically. Limits are what YOU set yourself. Every management guru says team is so important and that’s very true. It’s a two-way street as well, so let people come to you with ideas and learn from others in a team. That way, you’ll earn respect.