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
— Rebecca De Cicco (@becdecicco) November 19, 2015
— 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.
— 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.
— 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.
— Robert Klaschka (@robertklaschka) November 20, 2015
— BIM4SME (@BIM4SME) November 20, 2015
I’ve spoken to some of the people who reacted online to goings on at the Construction Computing Awards.
“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.”
“ 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.”
“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.”
“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]