Construction

Female Powerhouses: Meet women in construction

March 4, 2022

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In the words of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), the aim of the Women in Construction Week – on March 6-12 this year – is to ‘highlight women as a viable component of the construction industry’. We would add that this week also actively celebrates the vital role of women in construction and encourages new talent to join this growing, vibrant group.

To honour the upcoming Women in Construction Week, we chatted with female powerhouses working in construction right now.

LISA ROOKE-JAMES, 54, SENIOR BUILDING CONTROL SURVEYOR AT HARWOOD

What exactly do you do?

I make sure whatever is being built will be built safely and according to approved documents. From checking plans to going on site up to 8 stages with the build: beginning with the foundations and ending when the project is complete.

How long have you been in construction?

Since 2005.

What was your route into construction?

I was doing all sorts. Admin, retail…I didn’t really know what I wanted to do!

I remember when I was 18, though, wanting to be a quantity surveyor… But my life took a different path.

Years later, a neighbour was telling me about his son who’d done a degree later in life and that rekindled my interest in surveying. I took a second degree (in surveying), went straight into building control, and then joined an Approved Inspector [private version of a local authority building control inspector] in 2008. I joined Harwood in September last year.

My family are all in construction – it’s in my blood – and I thoroughly enjoy it.

What were the challenges you faced when you started out?

I remember there was a university paper on that: ‘What challenges do you think there are for women in construction?’ But I’ve never been one to look at the fact that I’m a woman and think therefore I’m going to have difficulties. I just simply get on with it and if people have a problem with me, that’s their problem.

I’ll still get it where I’ll ring up to make an appointment to visit and the contractor says: ‘If you can tell him to be here at…’ But that’s water off a duck’s back. I know what I’m doing, and I just get on with it.

Do you feel those issues have changed? 

They have lessened but they are still there. I once went on site with a man who was teaching me the ropes and someone asked him if I was his wife. I just said: ‘No I am not!’ He was quite horrified. Maybe you have to have a thick skin if you’re going into a traditionally male role.

What are the challenges to women in construction now? 

Personally, I think there are opportunities. Especially in what I’m doing. It is an ever-decreasing pool of surveyors who do building control, so if you are interested in construction and building control, there are opportunities to come into the industry.

I don’t know that there are difficulties in the wider construction community. But if there are, find ways around them. Over them. Through them. Under them. If this is what you want to do, make it happen.

Why do we need the Women in Construction week? 

Women need to have it brought to their attention that they can do anything. Unfortunately, we still have to do that. And it’s important to draw it to the wider community’s attention that they’re not going to stop women coming into construction.

There are limited numbers of women coming in. Is that from education?

When I was doing my degree, I had to give a talk about going into construction. Nobody signed up until it was billed as me talking about my life. 60 or 70 girls turned up. I was pregnant at the time, with twins, and all they were interested in was me having twins. I don’t know if that’s changed now.

Is construction a great field for women? 

Yes, because the opportunities are there as companies want to increase the diverse nature of their workforce.

What do you love about it?

I love the fact that I can look at plans and understand how they’re being constructed just from lines on a piece of paper. I love talking to people and helping and advising them on how they’re constructing things. I love being part of the element of safety – protecting people – say in a commercial property. I also love talking with the contractors because they just want to get on and do the job. All those factors bundled together really please me.

The other aspect is looking at holes in the ground. If I’m out and about and I see a hole in the ground, I’ll go and look in it. My family think I’m nuts, but I really enjoy that. Recently I saw green sand for the first time and I was telling everybody about it! The only person remotely interested was my father.

What advice would you give to any women considering working in construction? 

To absolutely do that. Have time working in various construction disciplines and talk to as many people as possible. Do a degree if you can; or get a trainee position. Do your homework, really.

What are your hopes for women in construction in the future?

That more women come in and that it’s just the accepted norm. It has become more normal, but in my 15 or so years, I think I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I’ve seen a female bricklayer or plumber…

SOPHIA GOUDIE, 31, QUANTITY SURVEYOR AT KIER CONSTRUCTION

What exactly do you do?

A quantity surveyor deals with the finances and the contracts for projects — specifically construction projects.

How long have you been in construction?

For just over 10 years.

Why choose construction? 

My parents were in the industry – my mum was a civil engineer and my dad was a building surveyor – so I was always interested. I originally wanted to be an architect and I joined an architecture firm on work experience. They sent me to college to do a Building, Services and Engineering course and that made me want to move into surveying.

What were the challenges you faced when you started out?

Because my mum was in the industry, I was always aware of what the difficulties might be. She’d tell me stories – ‘lads mags’ in the communal area… – but that stuff wasn’t apparent when I started.

Do you feel those issues have changed? 

It’s definitely a lot better than I think it was years ago. There are elements [of sexism] in every industry; even if you’re a teacher. Society was different then and it wasn’t the norm for women to be working in the industry — so you did get treated a little like you didn’t know what you were talking about. But that has definitely improved during my time in construction.

What are the challenges to women in construction now? 

There’s still an element of people being surprised that you’re in the industry and, with that, comes the assumption you’re not going to know things. But you just have to keep shooting down those misconceptions. That inspires me, yes.

Why do we need the Women in Construction week? 

The more you show representation, the more you show people enjoy this industry — and we want to inspire other people to become part of it. I think people have the misconception that no females work in construction — so this week highlights to kids at school who might be interested but who are saying ‘I don’t know if this is for me; it’s a boys’ career’, that that’s not really the truth anymore.

Is construction a great field for women? 

It’s a fantastic industry to work in. If you have a personality that likes to be in charge, you like running things, and you have an analytical mind, those are the qualities this industry needs.

What do you love about it?

I just really enjoy it and it suits my personality as well; it gives me the things that I need out of my career. I’ll definitely be in construction forever. I can’t see myself changing.

What advice would you give to any women considering working in construction? 

Go for it and you won’t regret it.

What are your hopes for women in construction in the future?

I want to see more of us in the industry. The balance at Kier is quite good. We have a lot of females that are in charge; a lot of females in the teams that I work in. When I started out it was a lot less. Kier is very focused on having women in the industry – I think we have an almost 50:50 split across various roles – but let’s see even more women in the industry.

CHARLEY GREMO-GILHAM, 46, CO-FOUNDER AND BUSINESS DIRECTOR OF RED KEY CONCEPTS

What exactly do you do?

I run the business with my brother and another Director — my brother is the other co-founder. We are main contractors and developers and I do a bit of everything really: people management, marketing, finances, reporting, identifying new client areas, negotiating, business development… Basically managing the business and trying to direct it to grow healthy in the correct way.

How long have you been in construction?

We’ve been trading for five years.

What was your route into construction?

I’ve always enjoyed working in a very fast-paced, very challenging, very buzzy, very pressurised environment – before this I worked in the City in banking recruitment – and my brother was working for another main contractor locally. An opportunity arose whereby we decided to get out there and do this on our own. And we did. He had the technical abilities and the on-site construction background, and I had the background of actually running a business. (In a different sector, but those skills are certainly transferable.)

What were the challenges you faced when you started out?

I’m 46, approachable, and am aware I don’t dress like the typical ‘builder’. I’m very alpha female-ish, and I don’t suffer fools gladly. For me, quite a common challenge is being respected in the industry by other people at the same level I’m at or to be taken seriously. You can walk on site and people do think ‘The secretary has come to do an audit.’ But after so many years, it’s water off a duck’s back and, thankfully, opinions soon change. Working in banking was very similar — especially in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. You just brush it off because, at the end of the day, I know that I’m good at my job, try my hardest, and don’t go out of my way to redesign the wheel!

Do you feel those issues have changed? 

You can go on site now and there’s no Ladies toilets… That’s not because someone is deliberately not getting Ladies toilets, but because there’s one woman on site and there’s 250 men. It’s something that’s naively forgotten about but thankfully things are becoming much more accessible.

What are the challenges to women in construction now? 

In all sectors there’s a challenge with gender inequality. Sometimes it’s about the manual labour side of things; sometimes it’s about being paid the same amount; sometimes it’s down to it not being particularly appealing to work on sites in the winter months… But neither gender takes delight in working in a storm, I’m sure.

We need to show women there are so many different areas to construction. It isn’t just being next to a hairy-a*sed builder on-site. There are so many opportunities out there that form part of the project ‘team’. For example, there are very challenging careers in architecture, structural engineering, project management, accounts and working in a head office…

Why do we need the Women in Construction week? 

Women in Construction Week is a huge boost to the sector because it allows us to talk about it and to show what a wonderful sector it can be with lots of opportunities for people career-wise.

Is construction a great field for women? 

It’s superb — and it’s not about being the only woman on a site.

There’s plenty of opportunities but we have to bring people up through the ranks — getting them at that school-leaving stage and growing them and giving them opportunities to go into any area in construction. I’m sure most parents would rather promote more mainstream professions – i.e., becoming a vet, lawyer or doctor – as working in construction doesn’t always appeal to school leavers.

We had an apprentice in to work in our accounts department and, within six months, she realised she didn’t want to be in accounts. Two-and-a-half years later, she’s now a project manager and doing extremely well. We’ve given her the tools to achieve that. Even at her school, three years ago, she wasn’t given that opportunity in the schools talk and curriculum day.

What do you love about it?

I love the challenges. I’m a problem-solver. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no problem — there’s always a solution. If it doesn’t work one way, it might work another way. And we work with a team of people to provide that solution. And every day for me is a learning day. If you are prepared to listen, you can solve so much in one conversation.

I’m very proud to be part of an industry that is so supportive to women. Certainly in Kent, we have a really good network of supportive women in construction.

What advice would you give to any women considering working in construction? 

Be happy to work from home, but also to travel away to work. Be prepared to have very early starts and late evenings. Be ready to listen and to gain respect. There has to be some mutual see-saw when you’re coming into what is considered a ‘man’s industry’ — and rather than go in like a bull in a china shop, there are things that we can learn. Certain etiquette on site, etc…

It’s a big learning curve but, equally, it’s challenging and vibrant and very, very rewarding. To look at a building – a £7m development – that’s totally not going anywhere and to know you’ve been part of that legacy, that is lovely. That is quite cool.

What are your hopes for women in construction in the future?

I hope there’s a model out there that can promote the opportunities and make the industry as attractive to women as possible. This sector really does play a major part in our economy and I feel, with the right tools, the opportunities will be there for women.

Women in construction… So inspiring, so informative, so fascinating. So, we didn’t stop here. Look out for Part 2 of our chat with more wonderful women in construction. (How could we salute women in construction on just one day when they’re making a difference day in and day out?)