Helena Pozniak
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Support for women is on the rise

The Telegraph
The construction and engineering sectors need to nurture talent

Building sites are famously laddish — think mud, portaloos, hard hats and banter. But Georgia Hardie loves them. Her story is remarkable: she became homeless at the age of 11 and spent years in hostels as a teenager after her family broke up, and, unsurprisingly, her schooling suffered.

With a secret interest in carpentry, a then 17-year-old Hardie jumped at the offer from the Prince’s Trust scheme to join a Get into Construction programme. A natural leader, when her carpentry classmates, mostly boys, became loud and rowdy she gave them a good talking to. An employer spotted her potential and advised her to go into management training. “He told me that from the way I’d dealt with everyone he could see I was management material. I laughed it off — I couldn’t see it then,” she recalls.

Now 23, she has five years’ experience working as a site manager for SDP Solutions. Most of her colleagues are men — just one per cent of women work in manual trades within construction — but she enjoys the atmosphere and discussing dry lining and joinery. “It suits me. The work is exciting and it can also be a good laugh,” says Hardie. “I’m on my feet, running around all day, resolving problems, managing materials, making sure everyone’s doing their job as they should.”

She’s universally welcomed by her colleagues, although occasionally external contractors are surprised to see a woman in charge. With female staff currently accounting for just 11pc of the construction workforce, big firms are keen to attract more women like Hardie into all areas of the sector, from architecture, engineering and design to surveying, planning and project management. However, the gender pay gap, at 23pc, is worse than the national average. To keep up with demand,

Around 200,000 people need to be recruited by 2020, according to a report released last year by think-tank the Smith Institute. With the industry changing, projects are becoming more complex. Technology and sustainability are growing in importance, and more people will live in cities in the future. As a result, women’s softer skills are vital, says Clare Wildfire, technical director at Mott MacDonald. When she joined the industry 25 years ago as a maths graduate, women made up only 5pc of her peers. “I stuck out like a sore thumb,” she recalls.

Long before sustainability became a buzzword, Wildfire was designing straw-burning boilers for a client. More recently she has focused on issues such as strategic use of energy and resources across cities and large urban complexes. “I enjoy the intellectual stimulation — it’s like playing chess with a human factor,” she says.

The variety of work — from looking at international city energy policies to helping a university make the best use of resources on campus — and the need for people skills also drive her interest. “New challenges can play to women’s skills, and sustainability is not just about technical solutions and resources,” she points out. “You need to influence and empathise with clients to help them make the right decisions, and women are quick to accommodate different points of view.”

However, those entering the construction or engineering sectors can’t jump straight into issues such as sustainability — they need to learn the nuts and bolts of their profession, adds Wildfire. “If you haven’t done your time, or don’t know how to judge a situation when they’re due to pour the concrete tomorrow, there will always be an element missing when it comes to helping clients make strategic decisions.”

Wildfire is one of several well-connected women working to confound stereotypes. Role models in the form of Jane Duncan, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and Anna Stewart, chief executive of engineering company Laing O’Rourke, are crucial in the battle to attract more women, says Holly Porter, who founded architecture practice Surface to Air. And at senior level, they’re particularly thin on the ground.

Porter herself reached a point when she looked around and thought, “Where are all the women?” Her own practice is now 50:50 men and women. She also founded the networking group Chicks with Bricks (“ironic; we’re very serious really,” she says), which has welcomed speakers including Nicky Morgan, Minister for Women and Equalities.

“Most women in this industry have had a tough time at some stage,” adds Porter, who believes that the larger firms are leading the way in supporting women coming through the ranks. “That’s definitely where I’d work if I was starting out.”

Construction and engineering companies are beginning to tailor how and where they hire to attract, and retain, women. A report by campaign group Wise, which promotes women in science, technology, engineering and maths, found that the number of women building professionals had risen by 173pc to 46,000 between 2012 and 2014, while the number of men had dropped by 5pc to 181,400.

EDF Energy, which anticipates creating 25,000 new jobs with the construction of Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset, has been running a four-year, part-time Women in Construction and Engineering programme since 2011. The scheme gives secondary-school pupils tasters in skills such as bricklaying, electrical circuitry and surveying. “We’re working hard to address the gender imbalance,” says Nigel Cann, Hinkley Point C construction director at EDF Energy.

Companies such as Wates, one of the UK’s largest private construction organisations, are actively recruiting more women, while public- and third-sector associations are tweaking apprenticeships to make them more appealing. Laing O’Rourke has pledged to aim for 30pc of its apprenticeships and a cadet programme to be taken up by women by 2016, and Crossrail is targeting pupils — half of them girls — with a Young Crossrail programme. “We must focus on nurturing and mentoring women who are capable but may lack confidence,” says Wildfire. “When my son was four he told me he didn’t want to be an engineer when he grew up as only girls are engineers. It’s about perceptions.”

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