The second Inspire Summit in Manchester showed a strength of spirit and a determination to forge a more inclusive and diverse construction industry – but more men need to hear the message if more gains are to be made
By Mark Cantrell
MEN are missing a trick; they may even be something of a ‘missing link’ in the evolution of a more diverse and inclusive construction industry.
No, this isn’t said to massage the male ego, but to point out that men are not exactly doing themselves any favours by ignoring diversity and inclusivity. Now, this may seem like a strange point to come out of an event focused on encouraging more women into construction, engineering and housing, but it proved to be a key message from September’s Inspire Summit. Not only do more men need to hear the case for greater inclusion and diversity, those who are already amenable to change need to take a more active role in shifting culture and practice.
Held at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, the Inspire Summit, organised by UK Business Events Ltd, brought together hundreds of professionals from the construction, engineering and housing sector, as well as students and apprentices, for a series of talks, panel discussions, and networking. It was sponsored by the Chartered Institute of Building, Galliford Try Partnerships, Redrow, Wates, and Women in Roofing.
Over 40 speakers – women and men – from global leading construction and engineering firms, through housing associations and housebuilders, to government and academia, offered their insights on the ongoing effort to attract and retain more women into the industries.
With a packed agenda, split into two streams – one aimed at the professionals working in the industry, the other at students and apprentices – there’s far too much to relay here, but the event served as both a rallying point, and an opportunity to take stock and consider the perennial question, what next?
Marverine Cole, journalist, broadcaster, and host of the Inspire Summit set the scene in her introduction to the day. “The extent of gender inequality across the board, not just in construction and related industries, continues to be exposed,” she said. “From the gender pay gap to maternity discrimination, 100 years on since women got the vote and there’s still a lot we need to fight for.”
The theme of the long struggle was picked up by Emma Richman, director of assets at Great Places Housing Group, who gave a talk on the role of the suffragettes and their historic victory to win the right for women to vote a century ago.
Even then, as she made clear, there was a long road to tread towards greater gender equality; one we’re still walking to this day, for all the progress women have made in industry, engineering, science, culture, sports, and in armed service. She also gave a nod to the African American women mathematicians working for NASA at the height of the space race, who were vital to turning a “small step for a man” into a “giant leap for mankind”.
“We’ve come a long way in the last century; here’s to the next 100 years,” Richman said.
Dr Pragya Agarwal, creative and social entrepreneur, explored how workplace culture needs to evolve to foster greater diversity and inclusion. She told the audience how ethnicity can compound the issue of gender inequality in pay and opportunity, reminding that the issues are complex and many-layered, and therefore all the more vital for it.
Culture, in various guises, was a common strand throughout the day. This wasn’t just about shifting the barriers to greater diversity and inclusion, but also the way that achieving a more diverse workforce itself manifests a change of ethos that makes the working environment better for everyone.
Kat Healey, training manager at Seddon, said that in her company’s experience having more women on site created a more respectful atmosphere all round. Dr David Hancock, construction director at the Infrastructure & Projects Authority at the Cabinet Office, suggested greater diversity was helping to promote more flexible working by encouraging men – as much as women – to break the old rigid cultural tropes such as the 5.30pm Friday meetings that “nobody really liked but nobody felt they could challenge”.
Healey lobbed in a point about selling the industry to inspire children to think about construction as something to aspire too in later life; a point that applies across the diversity agenda.
“There are lots of things holding us back,” Healey added. “There is a real will to change, there is an understanding that we need to change; it’s a case of is it culture, is it policy, is it both? The way we recruit, the way we train, the way we train our managers, the way we interact externally is an issue.
“People have already made up their mind where they want to be at seven; we go in at 14 or 15 and say do you want to go into construction? We are up against some very sexy businesses and they are selling the dream to our next generation. Construction is amazing. It is innovative. It is part of our economic survival, so why aren’t we selling it? We’re not giving it the credit it deserves. We are going into schools with posters – we should be going in with technology.”
Hancock added: “Men have as much a part to play in this, of helping women to get up there and get role models. One of the things myself and my colleagues have said is we will never sit on panels if there’s a not a woman represented.”
That’s a small thing, he admitted, but it did score him a point with host Marverine Cole; in a way he also presaged Emma Nicholls’ later panel discussion, where she asked the rhetorical question: “Where are all the men?”
This takes us back to our opening point. In her session, panellists Nigel Wilson, [then] chief executive of Wythenshawe Community Housing Group [now chief executive of Sunderland’s Gentoo Group]; Paul Chandler, group managing director of Wates Construction; and Duncan Williams, regional director for housing at Seddon, explored the ways that men can be allies in the struggle for gender parity.
But as Nichols – director of Your Red Dress – told the audience, unless more men are brought into the conversation, then it becomes more a case of preaching to the converted. If men are going to be won over, then they need to be around to hear and engage with the arguments.
“All of us have a part to play, not just us women,” she said. “Men are very influential within this industry. Very often men are the decision makers, so without them on board we can’t change anything.”
The day came to an end with a fascinating – if somewhat chilling – keynote speech from Barbara Res, who talked first-hand of her experience working in the construction industry. In 1979 she became the first woman to oversee a major New York city construction project when she was hired by non-other than current US president Donald Trump to build his Trump Tower.
Res regaled the audience with some blood-curdling anecdotes of abuse and intimidation, but also revealed an indomitable spirit in sticking it out and standing firm in the face of discrimination.
The experience took its toll on her, she admitted, but she made her stand, then, and now at the Inspire Summit as a trailblazer and a stalwart role model for women.
The fight for gender parity in any field isn’t easy – but it gets easier as more people answer the call. As Cole told her audience: “You are part of the change.”
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There to Inspire
EVENTS like the Inspire Summit “matter so much”, said Loretta Lipworth, North West regional chair of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC).
“We need to get people together in the same place to figure out how we can help the industry become a better place for women to work in, and also how organisations can [provide] support and come together to work on solutions collaboratively,” she added.
For Lauren Pollitt, a roofer with Wythenshawe Community Housing Group, events like the Inspire Summit bring women closer together.
“It gets them talking, it gets them thinking about joining the industry,” she said. “The fact is we haven’t got enough people in the building industry. We need to bring more people in. There’s not enough with just men coming in, so we need to bring women in.
“These events need to happen if you want those facts to be put in place. They need to be held and they need to be active. A lot of people need to come here, they need to see that there is a lot of women working to get more people into the industry.”
This article first appeared in Northern Housing magazine #2 October 2018