Women civil engineering surveyors are forging gains in the construction industry

by Ann Allen MBE, CEO, Chartered Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors

International Women’s Day (IWD) is an opportunity for everyone to celebrate the contribution women make in creating diverse and inclusive workplaces. The IWD theme makes me reflect on how much the workplace has changed – and changed for the better.

I re-watched the film Hidden Figures set in the 1960s. The film is about Katherine Johnson and her colleagues at NASA. Katherine Johnson was an African American woman whose skills in analytical geometry were critical to NASA being able to project astronauts into space. Whilst the Apollo programme was celebrated, these women went largely unrecognised until 2015 when Katherine Johnson was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

I have seen positive change since I started working in the early 1980s. Even then, women working for some property and construction companies were prohibited from wearing trousers. Mind you the same organisations also prohibited the men in the company having beards. Things have changed on many fronts. I now see women working across the construction industry from apprentices to some holding senior positions.


I was reflecting on this when I shared a speaking platform with Rachel Skinner the current president of the UK's Institution of Civil Engineers, who is an exemplar of how women are making their mark on construction. Interestingly on that occasion the chair of the panel was also female. 

We are making progress, but when I talk to members on our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Council I realise how much more there is to do. Indeed, in my own recent experience I continue to be amazed when all male bidding teams feel comfortable attending a bid interview, despite having purported in their bids how they value diversity.

There is still so much we need to do. We all have a responsibility to challenge. In some ways I would take it further than to choose to challenge and suggest that we should feel an obligation to challenge. As the theme suggests, unless we challenge, nothing will change and certainly the leaders of the various equality movements in the early days knew that they had to challenge. 

Work is about output, not presenteeism

Chartered Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors - Ann Allen - IWD

Past years have both highlighted the issue of discrimination and increased tolerance. Current statistics indicate that more women than men were furloughed in the first lockdown and early indications indicate that there will be a similar pattern of more women losing their jobs as a result of the pandemic.

On a positive however, I believe that many people have finally realised that work is not about presenteeism but about output. People can mix work and living, with organisations still being able to deliver what they need to deliver.

As someone who can remember the days when I worked at home forcing the children into complete silence when I took a call, I relish the fact that everyone has got used to interruptions on virtual calls, whether it is someone delivering a parcel or a cat becoming the star of the show.

The idea that people’s mental health and welfare is important still needs nurturing. I love the 'Wellbeing Wednesday' idea that many organisations have introduced.  

To challenge is to be constructive

Some may suggest that challenge is the wrong word, that it suggests aggression or a negative outlook. I disagree. Challenge can be constructive and when done effectively it can demonstrate the benefits of change and new ways of looking at situations. I would say that when we challenge, we should do so appropriately.

The Chartered Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors ran a survey on internet trolling and I was shocked to see how many people of both genders were impacted by people challenging in a cruel, aggressive and on occasion a very threatening way.

So, as we take up the baton to choose to challenge, we must also think about how we challenge and encourage positive change. As an example, I chair the Scottish board of Women in Property and we actively contact conference organisers where the presentation panels are not diverse. We don’t simply ‘complain’. We support the same organisations on future events to find women speakers

IWD calls upon us to reflect on our own actions

If we are to attract the young talent that our industry so urgently needs, we must ensure that we are inclusive and reflect the diversity of our society. International Women’s Day is an opportunity for each of us to reflect whether we do challenge the norm and enable women to be successful in our industry.

I would encourage you to do this, not just on International Women’s Day, but to ensure that every day you choose to challenge and provide the leadership that our sector needs.

We must not simply think about gender, but diversity in all aspects.

We can take inspiration from our past, but look to change the future. 


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