Earlier in the year and to celebrate International women's day 2017, Rajapack invited Cristina to form part of a group article which focused its attention on women working in sectors where the female presence is not common.
We have added links to the final piece and follow up articles on the publications section of the website (here) but we wanted to share the entire interview on our blog should it kindle interest on an i ndustry we feel passionate about.
• How did you first become interested in working in the construction industry?
When I was 9, I saw the images emerging from the Ethiopian Famine (1983-85) on tv and something inside of me clicked. I realised that the opportunities my parents had created for me were not available to most and I made a commitment to become a person who would contribute positively to the world.
Knowing that you are shaping the environment, the context in which people live, is a very powerful motivator and also very fulfilling. Working collaboratively with the rest of the team (from clients to the builders) is never dull, and of course, hearing the delight in the voices of those who will be occupying the buildings you have designed and helped deliver makes any challenges worthwhile.
• Why, in your opinion, has your industry traditionally been male-dominated?
There are many reasons which are either historical or no longer reflective of our industry.
For instance, too many people connect construction to a limited amount of roles and imagine those to be physically demanding. Nowadays construction engages many types of professionals and trades under one umbrella and health and safety legislation forces everyone who is part of the process to consider how to build safely.
There is also a lack of understanding of the career prospects to be had within the industry. This, in part, is the industry’s own fault for we certainly are good at “getting on with the job” but not so much at communicating how we do it.
Furthermore, many people still think that you choose a role/trade and must remain on it until you retire. The reality, of course, is that most companies (such as contractors, for example) have in-house advancement opportunities which include serious training to further the employees’ development and allow them to develop a career path which is suited to their lives and skills.
It is fair to say that there are some sectors within the periphery of the industry, in particular, which are somewhat archaic towards diversity (not only women) but they are not the ones one would consider “construction” and it is my opinion, they too will have to evolve if they are to reflect the diversity of their clients.
• What, if any, challenges do women face getting into construction
The most obvious one is overcoming the external perception people have of the construction industry as a harsh and dirty environment. Although the Health and safety legislation looks after the welfare of individuals and modern methods of construction rely less on physical force, this message is not getting across to the general public, and parents, who naturally want to “protect” their children imagine the industry to be a much harsher environment than it really is.
Then, of course, there is the lack of access to relevant insight in regard to the many opportunities our industry has to offer. Schools more often than not do not engage girls in relevant discussions and direct them towards industries which may have been historically female or are saturated. Yet we know that early engagement of girls in schools is vital, for studies show that after the age 16 British girls are not easily engaged in Sciences or technology.
And finally, there is a lack of visible role models as indicators of career advancement which signals a clear message: there is no room for growth and development. This is not the case, however most people don’t want to be pioneers and yet choosing an industry where nobody looks like you requires determination and clarity which not everyone has at the start of their career.
• Are there any challenges for women once they are in the industry?
As they are for men.
The Construction industry encompasses a very wider range of roles. From the Lawyers who write the land purchases to the architects who plan the designs, the environmental engineers who advise on lowering the impact of development or the landscaping architects looking at maximising the amenity spaces. Then there are the contractors who organise the construction works, the joiners who will build the door frames, skirting and cabinets and finally the sales team. Each role is key to the delivery of projects and comes with different challenges.
The industry is working really hard to change and evolve, and it is fair to say that it is not the fastest. It is also fair to say that the “skills gap” we have been suffering has not helped for it is not easy to get the buy-in of an ever-changing workforce (this is the case for any type of organisation).
Personally, I have seen an enormous change since I first started working in London in 2000. Most professional teams have women, most medium/large sites have separate welfare facilities, I no longer hear or see inappropriate comments or images when visiting site and contractors are now obliged to respect the neighbouring area or suffer hefty penalties.
The most common challenges for the female workforce also affect men and other industries. The traditional understanding of success as a ladder rather than a climbing frame, linear career paths and inflexible working practices often clash with family life and as men take a more active role in their families, the effect of those is also having an impact on them.
• Have you personally ever felt at a disadvantage because of your gender?
Yes. But I don't like dwelling on things.
The most important thing is that those were instances caused by specific individuals, who were not very confident in their own ability, rather than a rule. Furthermore, I must emphasise that, on those occasions, I have had the support of others who have challenged the particular individual or expressed their support towards me.
• Do you think your industry has changed to attract more female leaders?
The industry is changing to be more inclusive and diverse because it needs to be better equipped to serve the communities we design for and the client bodies we design with. i.e. If we are building for every type of person, it makes sense to have every type of person form part of the building process.
We are seeing companies actively accelerating the implementation of diversity at the top or their organisations by drawing people in from other industries and retraining them.
We have also started seeing an increase in the visibility of the female workforce through industry awards and an active effort by the media to showcase women as part of the building process.
There are even women-led companies who have embraced their gender and used it as their USP (Unique Selling Point.)
• Do you think the dynamic in the boardroom changes when previously male-dominated boards become more equal? Can you briefly explain how?
As an architect, I know that running projects with a diverse design team where a variety of people and views are represented by each one of the consultancies has helped us deliver better projects. We tend to overlook the fact that male-lead environments do not only limit women. Men are often held to standards and stereotypes which are unhelpful when it comes to delivering a project for those discourage owning up to mistakes and asking questions.
I know, through experience, that a diverse team helps both men and women open up and be honest about the problems in hand without having to worry about keeping up appearances. I realised about this through a male client who pointed out that having me as the project leader had allowed the team to open discussions he wouldn’t have been able to pursue.
Our industry delivers multimillion projects every year and unquestionably, there are skills which women bring to the table and help run projects more efficiently and with less conflict (the so-called soft skills, for example). Furthermore, women also (to their detriment) tend to put the project’s interests above their own career advancement. (Worth noting that this is often overlooked by companies who mistake focus with a lack of ambition.)
Personally, I think that it is in the best interest of the companies, to have a mix of skills which complement each other rather than single mindless which does not reflect the real world.
• How do you think initiatives to get more women into your industry at c-level are progressing?
We are beginning to see women at the top of key Blue-chip companies and this is signalling a positive change to those at the start of their career. Not only that but many of those women, despite their busy schedules, are active in supporting the advancement of others within their organisation for they are fully aware of the significance their role has in the wider context. (This additional pressure is a commonality with all other minority leaders .)
Through my role as London and South East Chair for NAWIC, I have met a few of them personally and I am always in awe of their generosity towards their peers. Their companies are actively setting up women’s networks to ensure that formalised networking opportunities , within the company, between senior and junior members take place and that training, development and support opportunities are clearly communicated to every employee. This, no doubt, is helping address some of the most common everyday challenges minority groups face.
Studies show, however, that it is middle management who has the most influence in the workforce, and therefore, as much as it is important to see inspiring leaders, it is also important to equip those in middle management with the necessary skills to support the progression of those under their supervision rather than compete with them, as it is often the case.
After all, it will be long term thinking and small changes that can make the biggest difference in terms of retaining and supporting the development of both the women who are in the industry and the men who want to embrace a bette work-life balance.
• Is there anything more you feel could be done to encourage women to join the construction industry?
There are many things we can do as individuals and as a collective. I think we often think that our individual power is much more limited than it really is.
As Individuals we can:
• Go to schools and speak about the significance that the work we do has in those kids’ lives.
• Become ambassadors of our profession or trade
• Join/Volunteer in associations such as NAWIC to develop projects which can affect change and inspire
• Support those peers who may be considering to leave the industry.
• Demystify linear career paths by sharing our experiences
As companies we could:
• Use clear language and contextual images in our websites
• Participate in careers days like those NAWIC (and others) organise
• Be open and fair in regard to the criteria for promotions and opportunities (Avoiding biased behaviours.)
• Embrace (rather than fear) Diversity
• Review employment policies and working practices to make sure they account for everyone
• Create formalised networking opportunities
• Recognise and reward talent: Apprenticeships, Graduate schemes, In-house development programs etc…
As an industry we should:
• Reconsider the message we send and emphasise what makes the industry special
• Put the right value in experience and acknowledge team effort
• Normalise diversity
• Showcase different ideas of success and role models
• Tell more stories in order to inspire curiosity
• What advice would you give to young women starting out in this industry?
• Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. There are many routes to get you to where you want to go and people who will help you get there.
• Find yourself a mentor who can help you navigate through your career and a mentee you can guide. (The first one will guide you the later will give you perspective by reminding you where you started)
• Join a group or association within the industry and start building your network. The journey is long and you will need companions.
• Women represent only 12 to14% of the UK industry, but they are a very generous bunch.