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Championing a construction culture change

The Big 5’s Women in Construction talks called not just for introspection, but for action

On its 40th anniversary, The Big 5 opened up a conversation focused on diversity and inclusion at the Women in Construction Forum. The aim was not only to shine a much-needed spotlight on the causes, ramifications and solutions in play across the gender equality theme, but enact a tangible and sustainable change. To promote words into actions.

Chief among the messages conveyed: stereotypes and biases need to be confronted; flexibility needs to be encouraged; traditional models of reward need to be challenged; and good intentions need to be seen through to tangible execution.

Speakers who contributed to the Women in Construction Forum:
  • Hanane Arif, Head of Communication, Société Générale Middle East and Chairman of WEPs, Local Network UAE
  • Morgan Tuckness, Head of Technical Services and Global Director, Drees & Sommer
  • Hind Al Owais, Vice President – International Participants, Expo 2020
  • Reid Donovan, Chairman, The Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE)
  • Katie Fifer, Vice President – Finance, Asia and Middle East, Katerra
  • Suad Khawaja, Vice President – Sector Manager for Dubai and Northern Emirates, Parsons International Limited
  • Jason Burnside, Partner, Godwin Austen Johnson


Battling stereotypes

While it should be noted and celebrated that there are currently more opportunities for women to advance into leadership positions across global industry, this isn’t to say that the job is complete.

Going back to the concept of ‘the modern woman’, notions of structural inequality and socially-entrenched hurdles still create a concerted gap in opportunity from a professional growth perspective in the ‘modern day’.

Much of this derives from the same stereotypes and unconscious biases that helped create this disparity in the first place. It’s evident in the way infrastructure has been designed and constructed for decades; so it perhaps comes as no surprise that it also dominates the world of construction workplaces, sites and offices.

And this is why a more cultural shift is required. It’s easy to show intention but that intention is being vocalised in surroundings that don’t support the words.

Resisting flexibility

A lack of flexibility – and thus, a resistance to cultural transformation – can be noticed across the construction industry.

From an MEP perspective, for example, a change to flexible timings and an openness to part-time work options should be considered in order to increase interest in engineering programmes among female students.

Studies indicate that while a high number of women do enrol in such programmes, those numbers dwindle over the duration of the course, and then again afterwards, suggesting that while the interest is there in theory, the transition into the environment becomes less conducive and appealing.

Retention of aspirational women to the sector is struggling significantly as a result, and the stumbling blocks don’t end there.

For those who do persist and make it into the industry, similar strains and gender rigidness await.

Many women have reported progression difficulties when it ‘conflicts’ with starting a family, as a prime example, and this is compounded by a reluctance – if not refusal – to adapt schedules, locations and logistics for women in these situations.

Pay for ability, not time

Enacting an entire cultural shift is not simple of course. It goes beyond aforementioned tokens of flexibility, and instead – in all likelihood – will require a complete rethink about how workers are assessed and remunerated in industrial settings.

Traditionally, a transactional ideology of paying people for their time has clouded the idea of paying people for their energy, efforts or achievements. Yet, it’s the latter philosophy which would pave the way for heightened business agility from a personnel perspective; lending favourably to increased gender consideration and balance.

The amount of time spent onsite or in the office can’t be equated to the quality of work completed. Yet, to open up the discussion of paying for ability and achievement instead would be to level the playing fields above all else, while simultaneously encouraging new ways of assigning time, location and workload that reflects a skilled individual’s personal situation.

It will require a dramatic mindset change. But, to not do so will continue to result in a vast loss of skilled women at periods of pivotal family junctures.

Policies without support

Inevitably, to rely on individual enterprises to entertain complete overhauls of mindset and operation isn’t sustainable. Policy makers play a pivotal role in changing the status quo.

An example of this in the UAE is Expo 2020, where there is strong focus on promoting diversity and inclusion through combating harassment and prejudice; making facilities and the work environment more conducive to women; and encouraging a general ethos of inclusion to instil a more wholesome culture.

Government-enforced quotas that demand a minimum number of women-filled roles at a company proved especially popular, in order to force the conversation into action. The hope being that once women in the sector becomes more prevalent and “normalised” then many of the existing restrictions and cultural hurdles will dissipate organically.

The issue, however, is resistance and a lack of support. Human instinct is to at least question change, even if it is clearly for the better. And even support is provided, one remaining obstacle persists – the ability to see principles through and convert good intention into sustainable norm.

It comes back to the difficulty of changing deeply-ingrained ways of working and cultural status quos. And it often results in targets being outlined, but a lack of uptake and adherence among implicated businesses.

A strategic business decision

The general consensus in overcoming this issue is to focus on the little things, in order to make bigger long-term impacts. The idea of quotas fits this bill as an initial opening gambit, and were championed in tandem with a broader call to action around hiring patterns.

Hiring policies that prioritise female applicants, especially in senior positions, are seen as critical to transforming the culture from the inside. From this point, greater support within these companies needs to be shown to encourage women into domains that are male dominated. To work ‘in the field’, onsite, in risk assessment, in roles of health & safety, will trigger an unconscious awareness that these roles are very much gender-equal in terms of capability.

If the factors that have led us to this point are largely cultural and institutional, then so too should be the response.

Naturally, this requires companies, and especially men, to be part of the solution as well, and much was made at the exhibition about clarifying the currently blurred lines between men- and women- suitable jobs. The onus is just as much on men to encourage a female colleague onto a site, as it is on that individual to try and break the mould herself.

After all, in doing so, companies can fulfil an objective that will stand the test of time throughout all trend and dynamic shifts. Organisations, sector-wide, have been proven to achieve improved business profitability when hiring more diverse workforces.

To become more flexible, embrace change, and to champion women in construction isn’t a tick-box exercise – it’s a strategic business decision.