She Builds UK is the brainchild of Neil Perry, a commercial photographer specialising in architecture and the built environment. He was prompted by a conversation with his seven-year-old daughter who told him one afternoon that girls couldn’t be builders because only men are builders.
Perry decided to do something about this persistent stereotype and embarked on a portrait photography project with the aim of inspiring females of all ages to consider a career in the construction industry.
“By celebrating a diverse group of women who already work in the industry and bringing them into the spotlight with photography, written profiles and exhibitions, I hope to create role models that younger girls and women can be inspired by,” Perry explains.
The stereotypical image of construction
Construction project manager Anita Suji, a Regional Director at consultancy Aecom, caught wind of Perry’s project last year.
“As part of our recruitment drive, we were looking for ways in which we could highlight the diversity that we already have within our team to attract a more diverse team – jobs in construction have a very stereotypical image,” she explains. “I came across She Builds UK on LinkedIn and it struck me that we had similar aims.”
“I wanted to change the perception of the type of people who work on the Aecom project management team, and this was a way of doing so industry-wide.” Only 15% of the construction workforce is female, according to the Office for National Statistics. She volunteered to be photographed for Perry’s project and ended up offering her project management expertise to help him; the project now has over 60 female volunteers signed up.
Sponsorship to fund the project, including its display at RICS London headquarters (until the end of June 2023), was secured from Aecom and Bechtel. Participants who were photographed include architects, engineers, project managers, planners and urban designers.
While one objective of the project is to bust the stereotype that women don’t work in construction through sharing their portraits and career stories, another is outreach to schools to make clear to girls that careers in construction are open to them. So far, 200 schools have registered an interest in having volunteers come and speak to them.
Suji and fellow She Builds UK co-founder Marwa El-Sheemy, Diversity and Inclusion Project Manager at Bechtel, have also set up partnerships with charities, including Girls Under Construction, to collaborate on busting gender-based myths.
The only woman on the team
Suji started her career as a quantity surveyor and quickly got used to being the only woman on a team (or one of very few). “I grew up with two brothers and lots of male cousins, and I think that prepared me for my life in such a male-dominated industry,” she says.
She switched to project management after her boss spotted her proficiency and encouraged her to take an MSc in project management so that she could make the move.
“When I became a project manager, that's when I started to find it quite difficult being a woman in the construction industry because there are some parts of the industry that aren’t used to seeing a woman leading a project,” she says. “Sometimes women have to work a lot harder to get to the same position as men.” Suji explains that she feels lucky to have had very supportive (male) bosses and mentors who have allowed her to flourish. “If you've got someone who truly believes in you and mentors you, that really helps.”
Trying to close the gender gap within construction project management means making the effort to retain women after they go on maternity leave, says Suji, who believes that attention needs to be paid to the gender pay gap and flexible working options so women see returning to work as a viable option. Suji points out that “At Aecom, we have our Freedom to Grow philosophy which enables women to balance work with other areas of their lives and really helped me in returning to work,”
Look at that next grade
Suji’s advice to women working in construction who want to get ahead is to think in terms of promotion.
“You've got to look at that next grade. Get that job description and align your skills to the requirements,” she says. “My advice, regardless of what level you are at, is to support other women because we need to be allies. The attrition rate in the industry is quite high and we need to work together to bring that down.
“Project management comes with a lot of responsibility so the more we can encourage and support each other in the roles, the more we can ensure women benefit from the great career opportunities it provides. Build those supportive networks around you. Have those mentors there for you to tap into and pick somebody that you see as a positive role model.”
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