8th March 2019

Women in our Industry

by Sybille Haefliger,  Associate Architect at Chalk

With International Women’s day celebrated today, we’ve been considering the role of women within Chalk and within the wider construction industry.

Chalk has two founding directors who both happen to be men, but the majority of the employees are women. This has not occurred because of any particular agenda, but is a reflection of the CVs that we receive; not many men seem to be interested in the interior architecture for which Chalk has a reputation, so it was interesting to note the increase in male CVs coming through after the ‘Architecture’ of our Madeira Drive concept went public, looking for roles relating to that project. 

Whilst the historic image of the construction industry as butch builders hauling loads on site is falling by the way side as more women fill roles on the design and organisational side of construction, the fact is that gender bias remains. It’s not always a deliberate act of discrimination that prevents a female from getting a job, but it can be something so everyday that it’s bias doesn’t even register. Take the humble brick, literally the building block of Britain. Honed to a perfect size to allow ease of building, at a time when only men built. Unfortunately, the dimensions are too large for most women to hold comfortably in one hand. Gender bias is innate in the industry. 

Same goes for cement bag sizing 25kg – most men can manage this, most women can’t.

PPE is still built around a man’s body shape. Whilst some ‘specialist’ websites do offer PPE for women, this ‘specialist’ kit doesn’t generally make it to the building site unless the females brings it themselves, whereas spare male PPE is standard. 

Think this bias only manifests itself on the construction sites? How many times have you seen a female designer carry an A1 portfolio under her arm? It just doesn’t quite fit. Fortunately folio parity is now being achieved with the advent of the iPad and the interactive portfolio, let’s just not go into the size of the latest mobile phones…

 With the construction industry lamenting a skills shortage, and the uncertainty of what Brexit will mean for foreign labour, the option of recruiting local females into the workforce seems an obvious solution. 

So what’s needed to make the sector more attractive for women to start and then to stay?

Research suggests a number of steps; not tolerating sexism in any form, recognising where disparity exists and promoting people for their skills, not their gender.

Employment of women in senior positions is also shown to be critical – giving junior staff role models and the knowledge that career progression is possible, together with providing training to allow skills to be enhanced and make the career progression a reality. 

Whilst there is still a significant difference in the number of women in senior roles compared with male colleagues, there has been some progress over recent years. In 2005 there were just 6% of women in senior roles within the UK’s construction industry. However, by 2015, this number had risen to 16% and is expected to continue to rise as we approach 2020, so there is reason to be optimistic.

At Chalk, the change in number and prominence of women within construction has been expressed at our latest project to go on site, Little Creatures.

Little Creatures wasn’t a project set up with a view to enabling a female team, but that’s how it’s ended up. The fit out of the micro brewery, bar and restaurant venue in Kings Cross for Lion Beer went to site with females in the position of Client Rep, Project Manager, Project Architect and Brewer. The contractor and site team are still overwhelmingly male, which is made more apparent by the number of women on site – the difference highlighting the status quo. 

The meetings and process haven’t been any different to that of a male led project – everyone is focused on getting the job done. Where variation does lie, and based on one project it’s hard to comment on whether it’s a gender or personality trait, is that the full project team are working collaboratively to give the best outcome. The language is direct but not confrontational. In a complicated project for one of this size, communication is key, and generally we have all been talking. The project is due for completion at the end of April this year, and at that point it’s success can be fully measured. At this stage however the Little Creatures project already showcases that progress is being made – that women can bring a project to site. The final missing piece seems to be the female led construction company – we look forward to welcoming one onto a project in the near future.

Having now worked with a more gender balanced team, returning to male dominated situations will feel a bit retrograde. We are aware that having women in the Chalk team is positive for the business, and others in the industry seem to be waking up to this too. Progress is being made, but awareness still needs to be raised so women can thrive in the industry bringing change one perfectly sized brick at a time.



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