The needle needs to move on leadership positions for women

Lorraine Williamson is a senior associate at Rider Levett Bucknall

Having loved to draw at school, and with no career guidance, I decided to be an architect. However, upon realising the disparity between artistic and technical drawing, I realised this was not for me.

“Emboldening women to go for promotions is key, but this can be difficult when there is no support”

I transitioned to a career in quantity surveying in 1978, starting at Willesden College of Technology and progressing to a degree in Quantity Surveying at South Bank Polytechnic (now a university), then the Civil Service, GLC, several local authorities, Hunters, Gleeds, and to my current position as senior associate at RLB.

Concurrently, I serve as chair of the Race Ethnicity and Cultural Heritage (REACH) community and contribute to the Diversity & Inclusion Working Group.

Over my 40-year journey, I have been involved in diverse projects ranging from refurbishing fire stations, educational buildings, hospitals, residential estates, hotels and new-build, to commercial management for Metronet.

Family commitments

Despite graduating in 1984, when female quantity surveyors were a rarity, I navigated my career while starting a family, which impacted my choices of employment. There were certainly limited opportunities for me as a working mother in the private sector back in 1985.

The employers practising “equal opportunities” were in the public sector, where I was able to work flexible hours, where parent-friendly initiatives were engaged, and where I had the transparency and visibility of new pathways that I could apply for to gain progression.

While there have been positive changes over the decades – such as women achieving positions such as president of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), and Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) – gender parity in our industry remains elusive.

In the UK, women make up 51 per cent of the population; in our industry, they only constitute 29 per cent of the workforce and are facing underrepresentation in senior leadership roles. The gender and ethnicity pay gap further impacts women. What are we doing in the industry to address the imbalances?

Attracting and retaining women

There are several initiatives being implemented, with varying degrees of success, to attract and retain women in the industry.

Starting with attracting more women to join, we are going to schools to present the varied roles in construction and engage with girls. We need more female role models to inspire the younger generation to consider a career in the built environment. I actively mentor young girls to join the profession.

The pathways to join have evolved, and we are seeing more women joining apprenticeships and graduating with construction-related degrees.

There is much activity at the entry level in the industry, but somewhere along the way, we are witnessing an overall attrition rate of senior women in the industry, especially when they start setting up families.

Encouragingly, some employers are offering positive changes, including hybrid working, flexitime, parental leave, support returning to work after maternity leave, and nursery and childcare costs. These are encouraging developments to support the return to work of experienced women and prevent them from losing their skills permanently.

Employers are reviewing their recruitment strategies to improve the potential to attract more diverse candidates by reviewing the language used in job descriptions, insisting on a balanced shortlist, and removing names from applications so that candidates are shortlisted based on their skills and experience.

Efforts to diversify recruitment practices, eliminate bias in hiring and foster inclusive cultures are underway, yet women’s representation in middle and senior leadership remains deficient.

Boosting confidence

Emboldening women to go for promotions is key, but this can be difficult when there is no support. The growth of mentoring programmes is an effective way to encourage women to step up and be counted. There are several women’s networks in the industry doing magnificent work, providing tools to support women to tap into their strengths and overcome the barriers.

As an avid advocate for women in construction, I would encourage women to seek out senior leader sponsorship and mentorship in their organisations who can support and advise them on their paths of development and progression, if that aligns with their ambitions. I acknowledge that not all women desire to reach senior leadership roles.

It is paramount for businesses to implement effective strategies to counter the barriers to women’s progression, backed by data-driven assessments of their efficacy.

It is really inspiring to see professional bodies signalling a collective commitment through the Memorandum of Understanding to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive built environment sector. It is commendable to witness how the CIOB, ICE,  RIBA, RICS, RTPI and the Landscape Institute are all actively bringing about positive change.

I am deeply passionate about my career in construction and remain committed to empowering and supporting women as they navigate and excel in this industry. I am dedicated to advocating for their advancement and am optimistic about the industry’s capacity to cultivate a more inclusive and equitable environment where every individual can thrive and reach their full potential.

Information on this year’s Inspiring Women in Construction & Engineering Conference & Awards – hosted by Construction News and sister titles New Civil Engineer and Ground Engineering – can be found here

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