The Lunch: Sisters are doing it for themselves

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When I was growing up I had dreams of being so many things.

Some were typical of a little girl – a movie star, professional violinist or a famous author.

While others were less conventional.

I went through a spell of wanting to be a pathologist at around aged nine. A bit morbid, I know but it wasn’t until I started university that I realised I wanted to be a journalist and when this eventually dawned on me, after years of thinking about my future, the idea stuck.

I believe it was healthy for me to explore various options throughout my adolescence but one thing I never considered was the male and female stereotypes which surround many professions and the idea that I may not choose a certain career path simply because of my gender.

Sadly, looking back now, I would say there were vocations I would have automatically dismissed because I saw it as a “man’s” job.

Working in the construction industry was one.

Aberdeen’s oil and gas industry has done a lot of work in recent years to try to bridge the male-female divide, something I don’t think I would have ever considered exploring 20 years ago.

And this is something the construction industry could learn a lot from.

It would appear things are improving in all industries to make them more inclusive. The gender pay gap legislation which was brought in last year is just one of them. But I decided to sit down for lunch with four women who work in construction across the north-east to see if they believe it is still an issue today and what more needs to be done.

Eilidh Cameron, HR and HSEQ compliance manager at WM Donald joined me along with Sarah Stuart, construction lawyer at Ledingham Chalmers, Aileen McDougall, senior quantity surveyor at Stewart Milne Group and Susan Wilson, commercial director at Robertson Construction at Aberdeen’s newest steak house Vovem for an afternoon of discussions around gender diversity within the sector.

One of the most obvious issues around attracting women into the profession is the stereotype that the industry is one full of physically demanding and dirty jobs.

And Eilidh said we need to be “realistic” about the sort of jobs women can do.

She said: “We are doing everything we can to get women into the industry but the job is a dirty, hard job. I don’t think you would ever get a female sewer layer because of the physical demand and I don’t think you will ever get a 50/50 split. It’s just the type of industry it is – it’s heavy, it’s dirty, it’s smelly.

“I think because of the physical traits required in this industry, evolution will never allow us to get to 50/50. That’s how I feel. If a female sewer layer turned up at mine and they could physically do the job then fine but I don’t think that will ever, ever happen.”

But Sarah said more and more women are becoming aware of the professional services careers which are more suited to women who want to work in the sector

She said: “It maybe also depends on what side of construction you’re talking about. Obviously there is the physical side of construction but there’s also the professional services side – the surveying and the legal side of it. I think there’s certainly more women in that. There’s more than 50% women in the legal profession at the moment and when I am dealing with construction law itself there are both men and women but I am dealing with more and more women these days – mainly surveyors and architects.”

But one of the major problems which it appears may take some time to be tackled is the balance at the top.

Eilidh added: “I think there is definitely still not the same acceptance in the boardroom, it’s very, very clear. I am the only one that sits with senior management. We are a family-owned business and there is a husband and wife that sits on the board but I am the only other female. I think attitudes at that side need to change from old school.

“I definitely think women would aspire to be on the board, but it’s an older generation man’s point of view. And I find myself questioning whether they don’t like taking instructions from a woman just because they are a woman, or is it just that they don’t like taking instruction anyway.”

Eilidh said that she found gaining acceptance on a building site was no problem, but added: “It’s more acceptance at boardroom level where we struggle”.

Sarah agreed and added: “I think it’s the same in terms of our partnership. Although there’s lot of females coming through as graduates now there is still a balance in favour of men. Within the senior partner group there’s two women.

“More and more partner applications are female but it may well balance out in the future.”

Susan was more optimistic about her view of the sector and said around a third of her employees were women.

She said: “More and more women are entering the sector and it is going to move quickly. You just need to get women in at a certain level and they are going to progress so it should bring change to the industry.”

Another problem the construction industry has in terms of enticing females in is the lack of flexibility in terms of working.

Eilidh said: “The flexibility is not there in the industry. There are not the same shut downs as there were before because the clients now demand service being available all the time.

“The flexibility as to whether you work from home is not there the way it is with other industries.”

And Aileen said that those who do come back to work on a part-time basis often see the nature of their role change.

She said: “We had someone who went off on maternity leave and came back part-time, three days a week, but because she wasn’t always there she came back in a role that was almost like an assistant rather than someone running the job. Because, as Eilidh just said, everything is moving at such a fast pace.”

But most importantly the women who are working in the industry feel it’s extremely important to get the right candidate for the job, regardless of sex.

Eilidh said: “I don’t think I am in the position I am in because I am female. I think I have worked hard to get there and I have had to prove myself.”

Sarah added: “Any industry should really want to have the best people doing the job whether they are men or women. There are lots of lots of females who can be good surveyors, architects, bricklayers but what is it that’s the barrier? Is it the physical aspect of the job or is it that they just see it as being a man’s job? If we can eliminate the ‘it’s a man’s job’ that should be enough.”