Belfast Telegraph

Times are changing for women in the industry

Property Watch

By Michelle Atkinson, Atkinson Surveying

The construction and property sectors are still closely associated with gender imbalance in the workplace but, particularly in relation to new entrants to the industry, perceptions are rapidly changing.

The diversity of career paths available is growing. Many more roles now exist which can be performed equally well by either sex as well as a host of other subsidiary roles which feed into the industry.

Women can often bring a new skill set and a fresh approach to these historically male dominated roles. Despite the recent lengthy recession and continuing anxiety over Brexit, construction and property sectors in both the UK and Ireland continue to create exciting and potentially very lucrative opportunities for all.

One challenge, however, which women should not have to face is misogyny. Construction and property, sadly, still have one of the worst reputations of any field in relation to harassment of women.

This can be subtle or blatant, but always results in the recipient feeling uncomfortable, disrespected and undervalued. Whether she has to endure a dose of so-called male 'locker-room talk', fend off clumsy unwanted advances from a male boss, or (as I have personally experienced) encounter a client who demands a male replacement, any female working within the industry today will have her own examples of woefully sexist behaviour in the workplace. 

That said, there is a tangible sense of change in the air and I have personally been encouraged by an attitude shift in many of the younger men in the industry.

Two young male agents recently showed support for a female colleague when they overheard their male manager verbally harass her. They appeared genuinely shocked and immediately reported him despite their junior positions.

Thankfully the vast majority of people in this industry are decent human beings. But sexual harassment can easily be perpetuated 'when good people do nothing' (to paraphrase Edmund Burke).

Employers too have an important role. The much discussed gender pay gap exists in large part because women historically have not filled the higher paid roles within the industry.

In this post-Weinstein era, it is incumbent upon employers to make their top positions more attractive and more attainable for women by looking seriously at flexible working, by promoting a gender neutral workplace and by exhibiting zero tolerance of sexism. 

Diversity should be embedded as part of the business strategy of any company so that all employees feel valued, thrive in their work environment and are judged purely on their professional attributes, drive and hard work.

I would urge younger women thinking about their future employment to remember that their career path does not always have to be linear.

Arts graduates, for instance, may feel that they do not have any aptitude for a role in the construction or property sectors.

However, they often have highly desirable and transferable skills which can be utilised in a whole variety of roles. It is immensely satisfying to be part of a team which has made a large project happen.

Do not be dissuaded by the idea of being one of very few females in the industry. This is already changing fast. There is strength in numbers and you can be part of the solution. 

Strive for a high standard of excellence and aim to become an expert in your particular chosen area. Work hard, be resilient and be ambitious.

The rewards, both financial and personal, are considerable. Yes, there are a few of those misogynistic dinosaurs still roaming the construction sites and the property fields.

But, when the climate began to change, we all know what happened to the dinosaurs.

  • Michelle Atkinson sits on the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Northern Ireland Regional Board and is the owner of Atkinson Surveying in Belfast

Belfast Telegraph

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