We speak to Louise Hobson, our Project Services Director, about her extensive experience in the construction industry.
Hi Louise, what are your views on the topic of women in construction? Do you get tired of the discussion?
Oh yes, just a little. When I started out I didn’t encounter any boundaries entering the industry and thirty years later I can’t believe it’s got harder. I’m not saying it’s a perfect world and there have been times when I know that it’s not been a level playing field, for example when you’re sat with a peer and they are earning 50% more than you.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 80’s and it was all power suits and bouffant hair (think Alexis Colby in Dynasty), and we had a female Prime Minister, that I saw unconventional depictions of women on the TV and it was inferred that it was attainable and I decided I wanted to be part of it. I love a shoulder pad even now!
I think a better conversation would be about diversity covering gender, sexuality, race, religion and disability. All groups that are underrepresented in the industry and need targeted and thoughtful encouragement to join. Some of the discussions will be uncomfortable, for example around career breaks for women or access for disabled workers. But we need to face these conversations head on.
Has it ever bothered you that there aren’t more women in construction? Why or why not?
Honestly, not really! I made a conscious decision whilst a relatively young teenager that I wanted to do something that wasn’t considered a “normal” job for a woman. Back then I definitely had a streak of wanting to push the boundaries. There was me and one other girl in on my university course. This was never an issue for me. It may have been for the lads, but I didn’t encounter any prejudice by them. I’m not saying that it was always easy, some of the technical stuff was so alien to me, but it’s in my nature to persevere.
When I graduated and started working, I was lucky enough to work for a tier one contractor and there were always other women on the projects I worked on and we covered most of the professions: planning, surveying, engineering, procurement. I’m pleased to say that these have become my closest friends and they are all amazing professionals. Once I was working everything I’d learnt at university slotted nicely into place, there is no substitute for seeing stuff actually being done rather being drawn on a piece of paper.
How do you think we can improve diversity in the industry?
Education and careers advise needs to be much better. If you ask children about what jobs are in construction, they imagine trades such as bricklaying or carpentry, and I think most adults would struggle to give a list of professions involved. I also think that any stigma about being a tradesperson or construction professional needs to be addressed. It is hard work and conditions can sometimes be wet and cold but the personal reward and increasing remuneration cannot be underestimated. Twenty years on from handing over my first project and I still walk past the building and am immensely proud of what I was part of.
What advice would you give to a young woman entering the industry?
Be yourself. I’m not a tom boy and I’ve never tried to be one of the lads. I don’t need to be. I have my own vision of what needs to be done and always have an opinion to add into the conversations. Ultimately as a construction professional that is what I am there to do. My gender is irrelevant.
Be good. Although I was educated in construction at university, it wasn’t until I got to work that I really learnt about construction and how to do my job. It’s difficult to argue or be awkward towards anyone who’s good at what they do. I have always seen this as the foundation on which my career has been built. When I started out I did document control, times and bonus and a tiny bit of progress reporting for a good few years before I was allowed to actually mess around with a programme. The experience I gained in those first few years, whilst watching more senior people do the job was invaluable. I’ve never wanted to be doing a job because I make the metrics look good, I’ve always strived to be the best person for the job.
What do you think is the most important change happening in the industry? What changes would you like to see?
Specifically concerning women in the workplace, I would say that addressing the number of women who are able to get into positions of influence. If you’re like me and spend four years at university, before you are established in your profession then you are going to be hitting 30. If you then require a career break for children, I don’t see how you just go back and pick up where you left off. Life is definitely different with a great many plates to spin. For the employer I strongly believe, because I know of examples, that women are overlooked or not provided opportunities because they are part time or unable to work long hours. This needs to be addressed. Working full time should not be the prerequisite for career progression.
In general though, I think that working conditions such as time and location needs to be addressed for everyone in the industry. I think that COVID may have helped. WFH was definitely not a thing for the construction industry prior to the pandemic. If you are in a trade role or on the coal face on site then I appreciate it isn’t going to work, but allowing flexibility in working hours and location can only help the juggle of home life and the mental health pressures the industry faces.
When I founded Urbanise, as a single woman I was unaware of such issues. Through my own experiences and with the benefit of being a director of the business I have been able set the scene about how we positively deal and manage such issues. We have had women employees work remotely for extended periods due to providing care for sick relatives and we currently have a lead within the business who is part time.