A few weeks ago I was pleased to be a guest at the Construction Manager of the Year Awards organised by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB). It is always lovely to be invited to a swanky hotel for a nice dinner and drinks, to meet fellow professionals and celebrate what is great about our industry. The winner of the CMYA was Dennis Wilson of Lend Lease, who managed the recent complex refurbishment of the National Theatre – an immense achievement.
Wonderful work is being done in construction in this country. For example, TV viewers were wowed earlier this year by a documentary series about the fantastic CrossRail project, which is overcoming huge logistical obstacles to dig a new railway tunnel under London. Behind this important work, and behind the thousands of other projects across our country, are two million dedicated, professional men and women who have made construction their career and are achieving great things.
But there is a problem, something that we don’t like to talk about, and something that spoils the party. That problem is sexism.
Last night the Construction Computing Awards were held at the Hotel Russell in London. Several of my friends were there and it became apparent on social media that something was wrong.
It turned out that the comedian the organisers had booked (Josh Daniels) decided that a construction audience was a good one for some sexist jokes. He singled out an all-female table and told them ‘oh you must be the feminists then’. When challenged by a male audience member who happened to be Irish, he launched into a tirade of Irish jokes.
Some of the audience were clearly not happy about this, and a few of them tweeted:
#hammers2015 is not a working mens club. Think women are owed an apology for sexist ‘humour’. What next? Roy ‘Chubbie’ Brown?
— David Shepherd (@sheppied1961) November 20, 2015
Unacceptable comedy humour at the #hammers tonight and in support of @WomeninBIM I took a stand and walked out. #diversity
— Rebecca De Cicco (@becdecicco) November 19, 2015
#Hammers2015 @CCMagAndAwards I suggest you never book that comedian again. I stood up and left. #sexism & #diversity is not a joke.
— Casey D Rutland (@CaseyRutland) November 19, 2015
I nearly walked out of the CMYA awards myself. Between courses, the entertainment came on and it was a string quartet. Not your usual string quartet either, but a group of scantily clad young ladies called ‘Stringmania’ with electric stringed instruments who played a series of well known classical riffs whilst prancing about the stage and into the audience.
Amazing entertainment @StringmaniaGirl #CMYA pic.twitter.com/OKb3DtJ3Rd
— BAM Construct UK (@BAMConstructUK) October 8, 2015
Several times they walked into the audience and leant over the (99% male) audience members suggestively. The piece de resistance was when they played, and danced, the can-can on stage to raucous cheers.
If you’re a woman in construction you’ll probably be able to imagine how uncomfortable that felt to me. From being just one of the guests at the event, I was suddenly objectified like they were. I was ‘other’ from the crowd. It felt like I imagine it might if you were a black man in a white crowd and someone makes a racist joke. All of a sudden you’re not ‘one of us’ you’re ‘one of them’.
Why does it matter?
You might be thinking, but Su, its just a few harmless jokes, a bit of comedy entertainment – what’s the harm? Have you had a sense of humour bypass?
Yep I can understand that perspective, but the thing is, this isn’t a bit of harmless fun. Sexism in construction is damaging our industry. It is damaging the reputation of our companies, and making it difficult for them to recruit.
Last month Constructing Excellence released their 2015 KPIs and reported that the proportion of women in the workforce had decreased from 19% in 2013 to 13% this year. We are going backwards.
@ThePhilpster @WomeninBIM @CaseyRutland @becdecicco Rail industry struggle too – https://t.co/tqYIrcDdvj #notjustforboys
— David Cant CMIOSH (@davidgcant) November 20, 2015
I’m one of the rare ones who didn’t leave the industry when she came up against sexism – which began in fresher’s week at architecture school. Many women don’t stick it out and I don’t blame them. Many don’t even think that construction could be a career for them, and what we are doing is making that worse. What is quite interesting about these awards events is that the perception of our industry is that it is sexist, so it’s ok to be sexist when you’re in it. Josh Daniels doesn’t work in construction. Stringmania doesn’t work in construction. But they thought it was appropriate, and the people who booked them, the event organisers, probably didn’t think it was an issue either. We need to do something about that.
Lack of solidarity from #meninBIM after the sexist comedy at #hammers2015 very disappointing. Stand up and be counted #ukbimcrew @womeninbim
— Robert Klaschka (@robertklaschka) November 20, 2015
Sad to hear sexism in construction rears its ugly head at #Hammers2015 – there is no place for this in our industry @WomeninBIM @BIFM_WIFM
— BIM4SME (@BIM4SME) November 20, 2015
I’ve spoken to some of the people who reacted online to goings on at the Construction Computing Awards.
Rebecca De Cicco of Digital Node and Women in BIM, one of those who walked out, said
“If these kinds of jokes are acceptable at a construction industry event we have no help at all in changing perceptions. A diverse and open workforce is where we want to be heading as we move into the future of our industry.”
Pam Bhandal of PB Marketing Consultants was also a guest at the event:
“ I was one female amongst a table of men and every single one of them were also offended with the comments being made. They weren’t vocal on twitter about it but did make their feelings known.
“The ladies at the Asite table weren’t impressed either and it was Tony from Asite who got picked on for being Irish.”
David Philp, Head of BIM at the UK BIM Task Group, said
“How can we really change industry if we cannot get by the issue of inequality. I feel sad as I thought we had moved beyond this. Our industry needs real leadership not just committees, we need to stand and up collectively say no, we wont accept this, its not a joke – construction is for all. Lets get this sorted.”
John Eynon of Open Water Consulting and a director of BIM4SME, emailed me this morning:
“I wasn’t there… But what I would say is that this isn’t just about BIM anymore; it’s about transforming an industry into the digital information age. With that comes an industry that is respected, diverse, inclusive, sustainable and profitable, provides great value to our customers, leaves a quality built environment for our children and enables great careers.
“Instead of writing reports [about diversity] its time to make the change, make the difference. Life is too short. If we wait to make the changes by osmosis it will take too long and not get far enough. Industry leaders and businesses need to take positive action on this. Time to stand up, get angry and reject the status quo.”
What can be done?
There’s plenty of talk about getting more women into construction. One common strategy appears to be making videos about how much equality means to you.
For example, like this one by Bentley Systems… can you see the problem?
If we can’t see what’s wrong with the above video, then perhaps its time to recognise that we can’t encourage women to feel part of the construction industry if you don’t talk to them about what is acceptable, what makes them feel comfortable, and what simply makes them feel ‘other’.
Alternatively, we could envisage an industry that really, truly makes women equal and respects them as equals. The Institution of Civil Engineers has recently made a video that does just that. This one won’t make you cringe.
So let’s talk to men and women in the industry, and stop doing things which are not and don’t feel inclusive.
Lets start talking about all our great work, and in everything we do, make sure that women are always welcome, everywhere.
[Image: Dennis Wilson accepting Construction Manager of the Year Award 2015. Photo: Su Butcher]
[UPDATE: John Eynon’s quote edited for a typo which suggested he was at the awards when he wasn’t]
[UPDATE: read a follow up post here]
Great post, Su.
I was also at the CIOB CMYA event with you and at the Bentley Systems awards event, but missed last night’s Construction Computing Awards dinner – I’ve attended it several times before (not always happily as some industry followers will know) but last night I was at the International Building Press Journalism Awards dinner.
There was no sexism apparent at last night’s IBP awards. This is hardly surprising given that in construction and property journalism, PR and marketing, we have – compared to other parts of the construction industry – a much higher representation of women among our professions (though the same might also be true in other construction areas such as HR, law, accounting, administration and clerical support).
Awards nights should be about celebrating what is best about our industry, not about perpetuating sexist, stereotypical views that perpetuate the industry’s current poor reputation. I applaud those people that took a stand against the so-called “comedy” act. This is the 21st century, and such “entertainment” has no place in a modern industry event.
Su Butcher says
Thank you Paul.
Su Butcher says
There’s been a huge response to this post on Twitter in particular so I’ve collated some of the responses here:
Alison Watson says
I’m pretty cross about this. I turned down two invitations from lovely Pam Bhandal and Jill Willoughby as I was at a celebration night for the students of St Ambrose Barlow RC High School. I know many of the people cited in Su’s report, including Su herself, are absolutely dedicated to the COYO cause of bringing young people people into our fabulous industry. In St Ambrose, there are 346 girls and 392 boys studying DEC. THESE ARE FABULOUS STATS, 47% of DEC students are girls. In some classes around the country, there are more girls than boys. There are more female DEC teachers than male. Are we really going to let this carry on into the next generation? Shame on you if you do. Make it stop for the sake of the kids where there ARE no gender issues….yet.
Norman Webber says
I’ve been trying to send the following comment to you via LinkedIn and your blog reply, but for some reason my laptop is stopping me at the moment, so hope this works!
I have read your post and it has both saddened and angered me. Perhaps naively I thought the industry had moved on. I have two professional daughters, neither in construction, and it would anger me to think they might suffer this but I suspect in their more enlightened professions it would be unlikely. Over the years I have experienced two incidents of rampant sexism that have stuck in my mind, one a speaker at a large construction computing conference who rather pathetically had totally misread his audience, which I used as a good lesson in speaking at seminars and presentations. The other was a large construction industry dinner where the speakers were (this will date me) two drunken ex-footballers, Denis Law and George Best. Their foul-mouthed obscene sexist ramblings using both the f and c words in the presence of a mixed, but male dominant audience resulted in more than one table, including ours, walking out and to my hosts’ considerable embarrassment.
Clearly in some quarters these attitudes remain entrenched.
Patrick Goff says
Good article Su. Things are changing if very slowly. I remember going on site on new build hotels in the 1980’s when I would stand behind my female design leader when her questions would be answered to me over her head. When she first went on site in the mid 1970’s a man with a red flag would go ahead of her to warn workers to moderate their language. In later years it was becoming more common to see female plasterers, decorators and electricians so things were changing.
In the 1980’s I took a group of predominantly female post graduate designers learning about profession practice onto a new build hotel site. At the morning break for bacon butties in the site canteen they took note of the female nude images on the walls. Exchanging glances they began to comment and analyse the physical attributes of the male site workers around them unflatteringly. The site foreman invited them back as he said it was the shortest tea break he had seen on site. Attitudes need constant challenging to change.
The cause is not helped by people such as the female designer I once saw going on a new build hotel site wearing a gold hard hat, carrying her note case on a gold chain and wearing gold high heels (about which she was not challenged by the ‘Elf).
Attitudes are changing, but the pace of change is very slow and unfortunately this is frequently led from the top. We need more pieces like yours. Up and at ‘em!
Chris Ashworth says
Well done Su for raising this issue, it’s disappointing that these examples should still be occurring, but is perhaps more a reflection of the attitudes of the organisers of the CMYA than the industry, as much of the audience seemed offended. But a public apology from the organisers would seem appropriate.
Su Butcher says
Thanks Chris. The organisers have apologised on twitter to two of the people who walked out, and BIMCrunch has been able to get an interview with the event director who has also apologised: http://bimcrunch.com/2015/11/exclusive-comment-construction-computing-awards-discuss-ceremony-controversial-entertainment/
Personally I’m not that fussed about apologies though, like you I’m more concerned that people who organise events like this still think that sexist (and racist) entertainment would be acceptable. They clearly don’t have procedures in place to ensure that such acts are not booked.
The other thing that concerns me is how difficult people find it to speak out against incidents like this. In the days since this post was published dozens of people have commented about their own experiences of similar occurrences, plus sexism at work generally, and many have said that they felt unable to do anything about it. That is what has to change.
I can’t comment on the event in question but I would like to highlight another recent construction awards event where two outstanding women (BIM advocates) were acknowledged for their contribution to construction. So all hope is not lost and I encourage you to keep up the good fight. Women in construction and hopefully BIM can only be a win-win for the whole AEC industry.
Young Construction Professional of the Year:
Elizabeth Peters from AECOM (Associate Director, BIM Centre, UAE and Oman)
Big Project Middle East Woman of the Year:
Donna Sultan – CEO of KEO International Consultants
Su Butcher says
Thank you! I hope I live to see the day when women winning awards and getting top jobs is the norm.
Ceilidh Higgins says
Earlier this year, at Autodesk University in Sydney one of the resellers A2K thought it was appropriate to have girls in short shorts and bikini tops on the stand! Seriously in 2015! It didn’t last long, They were asked to cover up with T shirts. Most of the men also felt it was unprofessional. Although att he other end of the spectrum – not long before that I attended a construction companies ladies night with toplessmale waiters. Most of the women attending also thought that was inappropriate, unprofessional and gave the impression the event has been organized by sexist men.
Thanks for a great article.
Su Butcher says
Thanks for your comment Ceilidh – I love your blog! Have subscribed.
I wonder what Autodesk has to say now. Do they have a policy on inclusivity at events? They should have. Maybe we should ask them.
Autodesk has an equal opportunity policy and strives to create a respectful workplace. Each employee must re-commit annually to maintaining an environment that is free from any form of discrimination or harassment. We do not tolerate discrimination against or harassment of employees, customers or partners based on any protected characteristic including age, gender, race, national origin, citizenship or disability and we expect the same of our partners. Thank you for bringing this to our attention and we encourage anybody in our community to share any concerns about discrimination or harassment with us.
Well now……do you hear that…..?
Total silence! I don’t think any of our “industry leaders” have the minerals to make a stand on this……there’s a surprise, or did I miss something? :o)
Su Butcher says
Maybe we should ask them directly. Who shall we ask first John?
Carole Teacher says
Sorry, rather late to the party. What a good blog Sue. I was at CMYA with four school teachers (two women and two men), struggled to watch the three female string players and felt I had to apologise on the industry’s behalf.
I love the ICE video which I agree is very grounded and enables great female role models to talk about themselves and am unable to say anything about the excruciating Bentley film. I do however want to remind people about ICE’s dancing film released earlier this year which proved that dancing is not necessarily sexist.Everyone was dancing. That’s not to say that I did not find it rather cringe-making.
The industry is changing though. There are far more women at senior roles in the professions. I no longer feel alone at management meeting but can’t help noticing the lack of ethnic diversity.
I agree with Alison, the industry will continue to change. We must be optimistic and keep driving that change.
Just one word of caution, having worked alongside diversity champions in the 1980s and early 1990s. This conversation may have sensitised people to sexism. If people actively look for something they will find it. Some fights are worth it and some not. Challenges have to be constructive and with a positive intent to find solutions.
Su Butcher says
Thanks for your comment and sharing your thoughts about the CMYA event.
I’d forgotten about the ICE video ‘Engineering Happiness’ is this the one you meant?
The Institution of Civil Engineers has really got a handle on just the right tone IMHO. They’ve picked up the enthusiasm of the industry, particularly around the time of the Olympics, and produced an amusing but very positive video.
I agree about the changing industry, and with your points about picking your fights. If nothing else this episode has affirmed to the people who made a stand that they are supported in it right across the industry, and I’m very pleased at that outcome.