How more women can be encouraged to work in the construction industry

Author - Helen Cartwright

Date published:

North East England Chamber of Commerce held its tenth Inspiring Females Conference on Wednesday 15 September

It aims to showcase women’s success stories, their career paths and how they overcame any challenges along the way.

One of those speakers was 24-year old Ellen McCann, a design assistant at Ryder Architecture who spoke about how more women like her could be encouraged to work in the construction industry. And what is needed to help women shape their future career paths.

If someone had told me six years ago that I would end up working in the construction industry, I don’t think I would have believed them. The image that would have come to mind would have been laying bricks in a dirty high vis and boots and getting catcalled by lads.

As stereotypical as this may sound, this was my perception along with probably a large majority of other young women.

Growing up I had many aspirations (as we all do), one day it was to be an Olympian, the next it was to be a conductor in an orchestra, despite the fact that I had no idea what they actually did. But one thing was for sure, and that was that my dreams had no limits. When you’re so young you haven’t formed these pre-conceptions of roles, nor do you foresee the walls that could stop you from getting where you want to be.

My main aspiration however was to be a fashion designer. I followed this dream and found a course at a Kingston university, and as soon as I left the open day, I strived to get a place there. Unfortunately, after a few months the experience didn’t match up to that vision I had, and I made the difficult decision to drop out of university as I knew at this point the fashion industry was not for me.

Dropping out of university seemed like it would be the most difficult part, but it didn’t take long to realise that the real challenge would be figuring out what I could possibly do next. Was I supposed to wake up one morning and just suddenly know what to do?

One of my more realistic aspirations when I had been younger was to be an architect or an interior designer. But in year 10 I did a week of work experience in architecture and walked out saying “I never want to do that again”. It’s funny to think that at the age of 15 you’re meant to know what to do with your life based off a week of sitting at a desk scrolling through Pinterest, next to a man with “I hate Architecture” written in capitals across his mug. “Wow it must be awful” I thought to myself.

 Little did I know in the future I would find myself back working with the man with the said mug, and it would have been one of the best decisions I had ever made.

The more I thought about architecture the more I realised it had subconsciously remained a keen interest of mine. At A-Level I was drawing local buildings, during my Art Foundation I was recording recollections of a trip to Venice through sketches of the architecture, and whilst studying fashion I was basing my designs off the structure of buildings in London.

It always came back to architecture, but for some reason, maybe blocked by the image of the ‘I hate architecture’ mug, it had been a while since I had considered this as a possible career for myself. This along with the fear of not being good enough, with teachers in school always saying you needed to be top of the class in maths and physics to even try to apply for architecture (which I can now confirm certainly isn’t the case).

So, a few months after dropping out of university I came across PlanBEE an apprenticeship, pioneered by Ryder Architecture and Gateshead College, based around collaboration within the construction industry. The course stood out to me because I would get to try out a range of roles within the construction industry, before choosing what to specialise in. Not only would I get to experience interior design and architecture, but also careers which I had never even heard about.

I began PlanBEE in 2017, as part of the second cohort with 11 males and 3 other females, which was a great improvement from the first cohort, when there was only one female. I am pleased to see that this progress has continued, with last year’s intake being almost a 50/50 split.

Standing for ‘Built Environment Education’, PlanBEE was developed to offer a new route into construction, rather than the traditional process of going straight to university without any experience. The course is formed by a powerful alliance of architects, engineers, consultants and contractors who sponsor the course and provide 4 month placements to students, followed by offering a range of job opportunities at the end of the two years.

A key strength of the course is the rotational culture, in which students complete six placements across each discipline, so that they graduate with a well-rounded knowledge of the industry to take forward in their chosen specialism.

This creates confident young professionals, who have the experience to be certain on their career path before committing to a degree, and with this comes the skills, professionally and technically, to be knowledgeable from the outset of our careers. The connections built, and collaboration between businesses on the course, puts PlanBEE students in a great position to progress.

I completed my six placements on PlanBEE, including roles in architecture, civil and structural engineering, site and project management, and specification development. Not only did I develop my skills and knowledge, but I also got to attend events such as the National Association for Women in Construction ball, introducing me to senior women within the industry who I could look up to.

Having the opportunity to attend events like that made me aware that even when you’re the only female working on a project, there is still a huge network of women who can support you in the region. I’d hope that one day the term ‘Women in Construction’ won’t need to exist as it becomes the norm, but in the meantime, it’s a great way of bringing women in the industry together to address not only the issues we face, but the triumphs too.

The dreaded part of PlanBEE was working on site. I knew I would have to do it at some point but due to the stereotypical culture of construction sites, the thought of it terrified me.

Nonetheless, I went for my placement, and was one of two females working full-time on the project, and the only female permanently based on site. I did not feel uncomfortable at all, and in fact I really enjoyed the experience.

The other women was in a senior role as the design manager which empowered me. I think this proves that getting women out on site can make a huge difference to their perception, and hopefully if more women that do get experience, there will be a domino effect with uptake of construction jobs from them in the future. 

Another positive move within the industry is that many construction companies are setting a great example with policies that support women and a diverse workforce. With ‘no-tolerance’ policies and induction procedures on site, a precedent for attitudes expected is set from the start.

Although I enjoyed the range of placements I experience during my apprenticeship, it still always led back to architecture. I got a place straight into second year of university at Northumbria and secured a job at Ryder Architecture to be supported throughout my degree, working through summers.

The practical knowledge gained from my apprenticeship put me at a great advantage at university, as well as giving me confidence in presenting my work at reviews.

I have just graduated from university with a first-class degree in Architecture, which is a surreal feeling for me for several reasons. Firstly, in school I never thought I would be capable of studying architecture, largely due to inaccurate careers advise. Secondly, upon dropping out of university I felt like there was no direction for me, and I was lost, but without having been in this position I would not have ended up in the role I am today… so although career changes are hugely challenging and at the time, and it may start to feel like everything is falling apart, the outcome in the end from following your gut is truly worth it, as they say, “feel the fear and do it anyway”.

I am now working full-time at Ryder Architecture as a Part 1 design assistant, and after only two months I can see the benefits of completing PlanBEE and taking myself out of my comfort zone. Even the fact that I spoke at the Chamber Inspiring Females conference was something I would never have thought I could be capable of prior to the professional experience I gained during my apprenticeship.

Fortunately, at Ryder and many architecture practices, there is a balance between men and women. But nonetheless, working in architecture involves collaboration with other disciplines, including going on site visits or attending design team meetings with engineers and project managers, which remains a male dominated area. The confidence working on site and surrounding myself with role models has given me makes this part of my job a lot easier.

The perception of going on site has gone, and imposter syndrome from being the only woman in the room dismantled as I became aware of the fact that I am no less qualified to be in that room than my male counterparts.

Furthermore, architecture practices still have work to do in increasing the number of women in senior roles. At Ryder there is a focus on retention in order to move towards this balance at the top of the company. This includes making sure we’ve got the basics right including parental leave/policies, addressing the gender pay gap, and having proportionate representation of women in senior positions who can influence on their behalf. 

I believe it is crucial to remove any barriers, not just for women, but for all to ensure we attract and retain the most diverse workforce possible. I hope that this progress is being made across not only the construction sector but all businesses, as we work towards building more diversity within all industries.

Changing the perception of not only the construction industry, but other typically male dominated roles, and improving retention of women is key to accelerating the progression of women in business and particularly leadership roles.

We need more female role models to lead the way. Having women in senior positions shows that those barriers we envision in life can be knocked down.

Alongside this, I think engagement with young women should start earlier, before they have built a pre-conception of the industry. A what point do we get that perception that puts many women off construction? Where is the line between believing we can be anyone we want to be as I mentioned earlier, and feeling like we can’t do something because of our gender?

The industry as a whole has a huge role to play in this, by getting involved with schools and colleges, similar to the way our PlanBEE sponsors have, they can create the opportunities needed to launch young women’s careers in the industry.

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