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WOMEN IN CONSTRUCTION – FROM THE INSIDE OUT

WOMEN IN CONSTRUCTION – FROM THE INSIDE OUT | AGORA AFRICA
By: Matleko Setati
Posted on: 17 February 2021

Throughout the decades, women have gradually infiltrated the construction industry.  The contribution of these women has fostered significant progress and positive advancement to the construction sector as we know it. We do however, live in a largely patriarchal society where, occasionally, we still encounter stereotypes pertaining to women in male dominated industries. It is up to us, the younger generation, to teach our families and children that gender cannot determine one’s future or access to opportunities.

The vast nature of the construction industry provides quantity surveyors with opportunities to either work on site representing contractors or work in consulting firms where they look after the clients’ interests. Having experienced both sides of the spectrum, I can say that there is some light at the end of the “women empowerment” tunnel.

When I first started working in the industry as a site quantity surveyor with a construction company, I would ask my male supervisor daily what tasks I could assist with. Without fail, each time, I was given tasks which did not necessitate taking initiative or would expose me to any interesting aspects of the construction industry. The awakening shock was when a male counterpart who had no experience like I did three months earlier, was brought in and immediately sent to another site to go and supervise project work. Although I was taught that I am no less capable than a man, there I was, overlooked and not afforded the opportunity to showcase my skills, or learn presumably on the simple basis of my gender. 

In contrast, on the consultancy spectrum of quantity surveying, there is an improved and encouraging representation of women. In fact, at AGORA, the female constituent represents 62.5% majority of the staff compliment. As project managers we are required to chair meetings where at times you are the only woman in attendance – extremely daunting at first but the support and cooperation received from our team enables us to disprove all negative stereotypes. As the on-site workforce has grown accustomed to the increased presence of females, involved in all facets of the construction environment, we are experiencing a significantly reduced fear of harassment and intimidation.

It does not seem to get easier as you climb higher up the corporate hierarchy. There is a narrative in the industry that women in senior positions are only placed there to comply with the quota system. These are the ideas which need to be changed as they automatically assume unfounded incompetence. This type of thinking is flawed because it takes away from the qualities that these women possess which on the contrary have caused them to stand out and thus recognised as extraordinary and competent for the senior roles. It is also these notions that make women feel they need to adopt male values and demeanour to be a perfect fit and exude competency in these roles. We need to acknowledge the hard work and brilliance that women in managerial roles demonstrate and that because of that they deserve to be there. The high walls of resistance that have been built to deter women from striving as industry leaders can be both intimidating and discouraging.  

Many professions have strict requirements for individuals to be met before they are permitted to practise as registered professionals in their respective fields. These requirements are put in place to maintain and compel professionals to stay up to date with current technology, trends, and industry practice. Following, is a diagrammatic representation of a typical route to registration for a quantity surveyor with a BSC qualification:

WOMEN IN CONSTRUCTION – FROM THE INSIDE OUT | AGORA AFRICA

Based on the timeline above, by the time a woman has obtained her professional registration status, is in good standing with the regulatory body, gained some experience in a more senior role and thus eligible for management roles as per industry norms and standards, she could then be at a time in her life where she is also ready to start a family and tend to ageing parents whilst simultaneously developing their own careers. The demand from these responsibilities may cause a challenge and decreased competitive advantage against our male counterparts. However, this cannot be used as reasoning as to why we cannot be successful in managerial roles. As the working model is not cast-in-stone, leaders can use this as an opportunity to explore creative solutions which do not require women having to choose between building their careers or building their families but rather finding a balance.

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has proved how adaptable we are. Prior to the pandemic, working from home has always been considered a privilege however, for businesses to survive they have had to quickly put in place measures to ensure work continues whilst adhering to the lockdown regulations. This is a clear demonstration that it is possible to develop an industry model which is applicable to today’s unisex and dynamic construction industry through the willingness to embrace change and compromise from both men and women alike.  

Furthermore, another way in which we can help change the perspective of the industry is to rope the younger generation in earlier. Let us encourage young girls to play with toys traditionally meant for boys, let us encourage young girls to take maths, science, technical drawing, or any school subject usually dominated by the boys. In this way, we will help spark an interest in girls the same way we do in our boys from an early age. It is also upon us, the younger professionals, to pass on the baton willingly, “adopt” a student and mentor them – get them to come work under our mentorship during their university breaks to learn and familiarise themselves with the industry and its demands. This will help give a practical understanding to the theoretical knowledge earlier while building confidence –  a winners attribute to possess in the construction industry especially as a woman.

Taking advantage of leadership qualities that women naturally possess which includes but is not limited to working co-operatively, paying attention to detail, proactive problem solving, and multi-tasking, the construction industry may realize fresh, forward-thinking, and creative solutions required to address the wide spectrum of challenges on projects.

In conclusion, all we need is to embrace our adaptation skills as humans, but there is no doubt that the construction industry is in good hands. We certainly have a long way to go before the playing field is levelled but until then we will continue to soar on the hard rock, one pink hard hat at a time!