Blog: Roz Bird reflects on the great strides made by MEPC’s Women into Construction group

Blog: Roz Bird reflects on the great strides made by MEPC’s Women into Construction group

22 April 2022

Roz Bird on why MEPC launched its Women into Construction group and what, inside just 12 months, it has already helped achieve for an industry whose record in the UK for attracting women into senior roles she has previously described as “woeful”.

“It’s incumbent on all of us in society to pick up on issues that are important and to think how we can play our part and make a difference.

“On the subject of equality in the workplace and also just generally about equality in society, I’ve always thought everyone should have a fair chance of being successful, getting a good job and doing things they want to do in life.

“When we got involved with our Schools Programme(link) and started going into schools, spending the day with 100-plus 15-year-olds, it reminds you that at least 50% in the room are female.

“When you compare that split with all the companies I work with, whether in construction, engineering, property management or surveying, the majority of people at all levels are men.

“Just looking at those faces, in the school… I thought there are some brilliant young people here – females and males – and they ought to have exactly the same chance at a career in all the sectors represented on the day.

“It made me really think: ‘What can I do to try and affect the work environment in which I’m operating?’ For me, this is about making the working environment fit for the 21st century.

“Everyone says that they are worried about skills shortages in their industry and they are worried about attracting and retaining good people. So why not take steps to ensure that 100% of students, in a school assembly hall, and 100% of people in society are attracted to your industry; whether that’s construction, engineering or surveying?

“I listened to a ‘Woman’s Hour’ broadcast, when the CITB (Construction Industry Training Board) were launching a programme to attract more women into construction at all levels, and I realised that the statistics are appalling.

“For example, only 1% of all manual roles in construction are taken by women in the UK. Some of the experiences that these women, interviewed on Radio 4, were awful. They had to be very determined to want to stay in the job and carry on.

“That was the point when I thought we (MEPC) are constructing lots of buildings at Silverstone Park, and other locations in the UK and so, clearly, we need to talk with our main contractors, to ask them how many women they have on sites and what they think about the issues and what the problems are.

“In November 2019, I had a meeting with Barnwood Construction and Forkers – both were already working at Silverstone Park – plus Glanville Consultants and Ridge and Partners. During a really good two-hour session, I asked them their thoughts on the situation and could tell they were worried about how to address the subject and that there is a tendency for the subject to be seen as ‘a woman’s issue’.

“I decided there and then to help take the subject out of the ‘too difficult box’ and explained that the problem is society’s issue – not a women’s issue, and that attracting more women will help to solve the skills gap.

“We need to have respect for ourselves and all other people. For every sexist man I’ve met, I’ve met a sexist woman. To tackle gender inequality, people need to change their mindset, spotting things you take for granted that can be offensive, casual sexism – the ‘bar room culture’ where people behave differently on construction sites, for example, compared to other social settings such as in the supermarket queue or at a family gathering.

“It was clear that the construction industry is letting itself down by ignoring the ‘bar room culture’ on sites.

“However, because there was so much interest in solving the problem, moving on with it and doing something about the statistics, I contacted Julia Muir, who’d written her ‘Change the Game’ book, to ask if she’d work with all our main contractors (the leaders of those businesses) to use her book as a tool and to work with them as a guide to become inclusive leaders.

“The book is a great tool. It goes through the importance of data and developing a clear understanding of the issues, and the barriers to women joining an industry, and how to tackle these issues. Also, how to identify new talent pools to reach out to women and encourage them to join the industry.

“The notion that women don’t work in the manual roles in construction because they don’t like harsh working environments is just not true. Nor is it true that it’s only men who want to do the late shifts while the women take the kids to school.

“Attracting more women into the workplace is not about giving them flexible terms so they can balance the kids. It’s about giving everyone that work-life balance.

“Lots of studies done by the leading market research agency Mintel, and others, prove that businesses benefit if they are progressive in this way: open to attracting lots of different people from society, creating a diverse workforce, meaning new and different ideas and perspective are brought in from the shop floor to the boardroom and every level in between.

“These companies are creating a working environment fit for the 21st century and these are the organisations that are going to attract and retain the best people and win new contracts.

“The dinosaurs that turn their backs on social change and social justice and who are scared of new and different things won’t survive ultimately.

“At MEPC, it’s about supporting people who are on right side of social justice issues and want to be organisations fit for the 21st century. Transformational leadership and effective change is something we can influence.

“I’m absolutely delighted, therefore, by the way our main contractors came together every single month to get their heads around the issues and make their plans to become inclusive leaders – facing the issues all with the aim of attracting more women into their businesses and the industry as a whole.”

Note: after more than eight years as Commercial Director at Silverstone Park, Roz Bird will leave MEPC at the end of April 2022 to become CEO of Norwich Research Park.