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Middle East construction firms focused on Stem careers for women

Gender imbalance remains an issue in global construction, but regional engineering firms are tackling the challenge head-on

Dr Salwa Beheiry, associate professor of civil engineering, at American University of Sharjah's College of Engineering.
AUS
Dr Salwa Beheiry, associate professor of civil engineering, at American University of Sharjah's College of Engineering.

According to research from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, one in three of the UAE's engineers are women. However, barriers to entry continue to be a challenge in the regional and global construction industries, but the #BalanceforBetter making the rounds on the eve of International Women's Day 2019 may soon improve the situation.

Gender imbalance is an issue that impacts almost every professional environment around the world. Nevertheless, the construction industry has seen a steady improvement over the years. Director of property and buildings at Canadian consultancy WSP, Dean McGrail, who has been in the UAE for around 15 years, says the number of women in leadership positions has “grown significantly” over the years.

“We’re seeing women take up leadership roles in the technical and construction components of our business," he tells Construction Week, adding that the heads of acoustics, façades, and architecture within his business unit are all women.

This is a step in the right direction, McGrail says there is scope for improvement both in the industry and at WSP. Five percent of the consultancy's Middle East leadership team is made up of women, and only 14% of its entire regional workforce are women, WSP’s Gender Balance Report for the Middle East, published in October 2018, shows.

“We are about encouraging the best people into our industry with the best experience to fulfil those roles,” McGrail says. “

We don’t want it to be just about gender or culture, but we need to recognise that we need some positive steps to increase the balance.”

WSP has four initiatives in place to improve gender balance, which include an action plan to achieve gold-level standard in the UAE's gender balance excellence guidelines, as well as offering one day paid leave to employees. The latter is expected to support the development of women pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and maths (Stem).

Vicky O’Neil, tasked with talent management at Aecom Middle East, says tackling gender imbalance “requires a measured and sustainable approach”. 

Aecom, which counts Warner Bros Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid International Airport in its portfolio, has set a goal to increase the level of diversity in the workplace.

“One goal we’ve set ourselves is for an equal intake of female and male graduates year-on-year,” O’Neil says.

“We see this as a sustainable model for attracting and developing the female leaders of the future. For the last two years, we've achieved a 48% female intake.”

As part of the company’s commitment to International Women’s Day this year, Aecom is relaunching mCircles, a mentoring programme for women to work together for greater gender balance in the workplace.

Elsewhere, consultancy Ramboll is also driving efforts to increase the number of women in construction. At the end of 2018, more than a fifth of its workforce in the Middle East was made up of women, who globally made up 34% of Ramboll's workforce. A quarter of the company’s workforce in Saudi Arabia are women.

Head of human resources for the Middle East and Asia Pacific at Ramboll, Maria Manzoor, says steady steps have been taken to address gender imbalance in the construction industry, including work on equal-pay analyses and communicating a gender-neutral message.

UK-headquartered Cundall wants to increase the number of senior-level women within the business, according to its partner and HR director, Carole O’Neil. Women currently make up 50% of Cundall's graduate engineer intake.

“We are working hard to build a strong pipeline of female talent at all levels within the business," O'Neil adds.

"In 2018, we made significant progress in our equality, diversify, and inclusion strategy."

The underlying numbers for women choosing engineering degrees also make for positive reading. Four in 10 graduates at American University of Sharjah’s (AUS) College of Engineering in the UAE are women – many of whom are now employed with the Middle East's and the world's top construction companies.

Dr Salwa Beheiry, associate professor of civil engineering at AUS, says the “leaky pipeline” – a metaphor used to describe the difference between the number of Stem-trained women graduates and the actual number of women working as engineers – remains a problem. The 'leaky pipeline' is also visible on the number of women moving into senior leadership positions, Beheiry adds.

Cundall’s O’Neill admits that it the impact of initiatives to increase the number of women in construction – and substantially raise their representation in leadership positions – may take some time. However, the industry's continued efforts attract women to Stem careers, and achieve the goals of #BalanceForBetter, are a step in the right direction. 

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