Sunday, 3 February 2013

Edge Debate - Construction Needs Women because...

So here I am again on an evening train out of London doing that outmoded thing of writing, with a pen in a notebook.  Head full. Where do I start? (Can I shut out the woman jabbering on her phone about job applications?)

It was a really good event.  The Danish Ambassador, Anne Hedensted Steffensen, graciously welcomed some 80 odd of us into her stylish home above the embassy in Knightsbridge.  She reminded us that more women were needed in all disciplines, including her own where she is the first female ambassador for Denmark in 150 years.  This notion was picked up by Harvey Francis, Vice-president Skanska UK who chaired the debate (Skanska are a key player in the Trumpington housing developments to the south of Cambridge). We wouldn't, he said, be having a debate about whether construction needed men so why should we question whether it needed women.  I could see what he meant but I'd read the motion in a different way, not "Construction needs WOMEN because..." leading to a justification of women's suitability, but "CONSTRUCTION needs women because..." leading to a discussion about what the construction industry's needs are and whether women are the answer.

Charlotte Morgan ( Linklaters -law firm, overseeing large construciton contracts)spoke from the perspective of large corporations and echoed the evidence much quoted from the Women on Boards Report on the benefits for companies of having women in executive and non-executive positions. A question later in the evening pointed out that a lot of women are involved in construction as sole practitioners and through SME's (small and medium enterprises) and that the suggested approaches of corporate policies, flexible working, role model/ mentors for new intakes were not so relevant to them. ( I wonder what the statistic is for the proportion of women working in construction through large companies versus the proportion in small companies and working for themselves.)

Stephanie Wray, Construction Industry Consultant and Non-Executive Director, braved bold generalisations about how boys and girls play and the clues as to how the industry may change its emphases in order to appeal to more girls.  She quoted Steven Pinker and said how girls exhibit a desire to work with people versus things and that the image of the engineer as creative, world changer was not getting across.  She suggested that the present day importance of sustainability and "saving the world" may be the key to attracting more women.  Once again though, we were veering towards a discussion about how construction can get and keep women, rather than what the benefits of all these women for construction would be.  Could we be so bold as to suggest that construction needs women because it needs to realign the way it does things in order to save energy, find energy efficient mechanical and material ways of doing things and women are better at that than men?


There does always seem to be a period at these things where we all nod and reassure ourselves that we aren't men haters.  We counter the historical assumptions that there are some things men do that women can't do and in the process we make sure we don't suggest that there are some things women do that men can't. Bar the obvious reproductive differences, I think that's a valid stand overall, however, as you know from my previous ramblings, I believe we have to use generalisations, even accept some stereotypes if we are to have useful discussions on gender. The Advertising Standards Committee, for example, ruled last week that the "Busy Mum" Christmas campaign for Asda supermarkets was not sexist. Research showed the majority of women surveyed identified with the image of the mum doing the lion's share of work at Christmas.  When I mentioned to a colleague that I was going to this debate she said,"Yes, but do women need construction?" (Perhaps that's one we should debate sometime.)

The last speaker, Katherine Whitehorn, from The Observer, gave us a useful reminder of how far women have come in their representation generally and their prospects in work.  As I think over what she said now I start to see how her apparently disconncected stories threaded together and subtly hit the strongest chord.  She spoke of a woman on the Barclay's Bank board of directors - long time ago, before all the hoohaa. This woman had made a point of neutralising all the gender specific language in the everyday business - the 'he's'  and the 'his's - she'd even turned the toilets unisex when she realised that power, when under threat, "retreats to the Gents".  Whitehorn's next story was of the difference women had made in journalism simply through being women.  The early women writers in newspapers introduced subjects they were interested in like health, education.  These subjects were interesting to men too, of course, they just hadn't thought to write about them before.  Didn't this somehow contradict the uni-sex story? No.  The point, she said, is that we must get away from the inherent belief that the way men do something - the way, perhaps, its always been done - is the only way.  Then we must make room for the fact that women might have a different way, one that might even be better.  Love it.

On the train down to London I read a government paper which identified the importance of the construction industry to the revival of Britain's economy.  Construction is under pressure to do things in a new way - more collaborative, more efficient.  Construction needs change. It needs new ideas, it needs good communicators, it needs to get better at cooperation and it needs to learn gracious and productive compromise.  That is why, I think, construction needs women.

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