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Why don’t more women work in the construction sector?

Not so macho: One study has found gender-balanced teams perform better
Not so macho: One study has found gender-balanced teams perform better

Top British QC Rachel Ansell is clear that experience is key when working in the Middle East’s construction industry, and not whether you are a man or a woman.

Recent surveys reveal that only 11-13% of those working in the industry are women.

But this is nothing new for Ansell, who became a QC earlier this year and recalled her early days tackling construction disputes in her native United Kingdom.

She said: “When I started 19 years ago, women had only just been allowed to wear trousers in court. You’ve got to realise that it’s moved on and women were very much unusual. We now have a 50-50 split coming into the profession.

“But it can still be quite hard to get women into construction, commercial or technical [roles] and there’s no reason why they can’t, but it’s about perception and getting them.”

One way in which this is being helped is through a Women in Construction group, founded in Dubai in November 2013. Ansell herself was guest speaker at the recent edition of the quarterly gathering, with a talk entitled ‘Top ten tips and tricks for arbitration’.

Being the only male invited to attend this gathering, I will freely admit there was more than a little feeling of trepidation as I walked into the event at The Shangri-La Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road.

And this wasn’t helped with one of the opening slides, as Ansell picked a famous quote from ‘The Iron Lady’, Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Great Britain: “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, as a woman.”

Nervous? Naturally. But interested? Most definitely. This was quite obviously no book club, or a night of gossiping about the latest fashion trends.

Ansell said: “I think this is a fantastic forum. The gents have their own networking, whether it’s golf or things like that and this is really good for women, especially because a lot of women over here might be just one or two within a construction company.

“To have this chance to exchange views and get to know one another, it’s a familiar face and it’s someone also to bounce ideas off and I think that’s quite an important function.”

That was one of the main reasons behind Nicola Dorgham-Milne setting up the group in the first place. A native of Glasgow, Scotland, she has worked in Dubai since March 2010 and is currently an associate in the construction litigation team at Addleshaw Goddard Middle East.

And the group is proving popular. From an initial 17 at the first meeting, there are now 90 members.

She explained: “Whilst there are a number of predominately male-focused networking groups and events in Dubai within the construction industry, I felt we were lacking an event that appealed to women in the same industry.

“The Women in Construction event provides a platform for women working in similar fields to network and socialise, as well as enhance their professional development by providing training seminars and presentations on various topics relevant to different sectors of the construction industry – whether you are a contractor, developer, architect, consultant or expert, for example.”

Previous topics of discussion have included: Key aspects of engineer and architect’s liability under UAE law; authorities submissions for approvals and how contractors should do it; and lessons learned on the project at ecomagination centre in Masdar City Abu Dhabi by the first female project manager in Saudi.

There is a strong legal presence among the membership, proving that construction law in the Middle East, at least, is far from being a man’s world. But their strength in numbers doesn’t hide the challenges faced.

Maria Deus, senior consultant, Hill International, who was a construction lawyer in Manchester before moving to Dubai just over a year ago, admitted juggling parenthood with her career could sometimes be an issue.

She said: “I’ve been in the construction industry for 14 years. The only thing is, what with it being male dominated, some of the companies don’t take on board when you’ve got children that sometimes you have to look after them when they’re ill, but it’s getting better.”

Cost and project management consultancy Faithful+Gould is another organisation promoting the role of women in the industry.

The training of local women professionals is at the core of Faithful+Gould’s work to set up a world-class project management office (PMO) for Kuwait’s Ministry of Public Works (MPW).

Faithful+Gould was appointed in June 2012 to set up the PMO that will oversee the country’s multi-billion dollar infrastructure development programme.

The firm is training a team of 180 MPW professionals to manage and operate projects. Some 90 of these trainees are women, who typically have two-to-five years’ relevant industry experience.

The ministry as keen to encourage young women to enter into the engineering world, and the hours on offer, in the public sector at least, means they can fit work around family commitments.

Greater diversity in the workforce would offer a number of advantages. Demand for new staff is continuing to grow, with 77% of construction firms responding to Pinsent Masons’ annual survey in December stating that they expect workloads to increase this year. A third of respondents expect order books to swell by more than 10%.

Moreover, Construction Week’s 2014 salary survey showed that as demand increases more workers are expecting pay increases – and are prepared to move if they aren’t forthcoming. Some 60% of employees expect a salary increase within the next two years, and 44% of respondents said they expect to change jobs over the next 12 months.

With such a high demand for staff, it makes sense for employers to recruit from as broad a talent pool as possible. Moreover, a 2012 study carried out by the Centre for Construction Innovation at the University of Salford in the UK found that industry workforces with more women also tend to perform better.

The study, by Dr Lisa Worrall, argued that there are “strong economic and social merits in the promotion of workforce diversity, in terms of reducing aggressive, stressful, and often negative workforce organisational cultures with a high staff turnover, to enable access to a larger and varying pool of talented workers.”

Back in the UAE, Mariam Halim Kamel Yacoub is certainly proving that gender is no barrier in the industry and that hard work is respected whether an employee is male or female.

A senior project manager with Al Tayer Stocks, Yacoub said: “It was lots of hard work and dedication. Putting lots of hours in. I remember some days I wouldn’t go home until 2am or 3am and then be back on duty at 5am or 6am.

“I’ve seen a lot of women from the design side. Currently, there is a decent number from the project management side, but I haven’t seen any females working as a contractor, leading a project. I’ve seen some women leading programmes, but not as a full site manager.

“I hope, moving forward, there will be lots of ladies reaching this position.”

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Construction Week - Issue 767
Sep 01, 2020