What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Construction?

This International Women’s Day, leading female execs from Arup & Dropbox spoke to Construction Digital about their experiences as women in construction

The 8th March every year marks International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. Dating back over a century to the first International Women’s Day celebrations in 1911, this year’s theme is Inspire Inclusion — celebrating diversity and empowerment on International Women's Day 2024 and beyond. 

This year's campaign theme underscores the crucial role of inclusion in achieving gender equality. It calls for action to break down barriers, challenge stereotypes, and create environments where all women are valued and respected. And when women themselves are inspired to be included, there's a sense of belonging, relevance, and empowerment.

The World Economics Forum reports in the Global Gender Gap Report 2023 that Construction, Financial Services, and Real Estate present the toughest conditions for aspiring female leaders, with a ratio of C-Suite to entry-level representation of less than 50%. Women currently make up about 14% of the construction workforce, a vastly increased number than has been seen in previous years, with the lack of representation in roles throughout the construction industry cited as a barrier to young women looking for career opportunities.

We’ve sat down with some women leading the charge of gender diversity in construction who share their insights and advice for other women in the industry this International Women’s Day.

Becci Taylor, Director at Arup

Becci Taylor, Director at Arup

“Over the last 20 years, gender balance has improved across the industry. We’re beginning to see true representation of women in leadership positions, though it’s evident that the industry still loses more women mid-career than their male counterparts. It’s important to acknowledge that to deliver the most socially impactful work, the built environment needs to realise the potential of a truly diverse workforce. While real progress has been made, we still have some way to go; on pure construction projects, I still find myself in meetings predominantly attended by men. To address this and further mobilise change, I think one of the biggest, and sometimes missed, opportunities is to educate our children on construction and sustainability careers prior to subject selection.

“Most of the challenges I have experienced have been more about the personal impact I want to have, and what to do next – rather than feeling held back because I’m a woman. I believe that to be a truly great leader, regardless of gender, we need to stop trying to be good at everything, but rather build a network of people who will collaborate with us to solve the challenges we face. Without this, it can be difficult to be an effective and positive leader – especially when projects go through tough patches.

“My advice to anyone would be to lean into your uniqueness – this is your selling point. We’re in a complex world that needs to bring new things together to solve society’s challenges. 

“Don’t be afraid to be different.”

Nadia Connabeer Mitchell, Assistant Site Manager at Barratt David Wilson Homes Treledan development in Saltash, Cornwall.

"People are sometimes surprised to see me building homes on-site at Treledan. But with my practical background, and by being up front and honest with my team, I've earned their respect. I’d love to see more women in construction, but I’d like to see more diversity in the industry in general. I truly believe diversity of thought gets better team outcomes."

"Don't let anybody get in your way. Keep asking questions, and remember, there are many paths you can take into a career in construction."

Sowmya Parthasarathy, Director at Arup

Sowmya Parthasarathy, Director at Arup

“I’ve been a masterplanner and urban designer for over 30 years now, and in that time the issues of liveability, social equity, climate resilience and sustainability have completely transformed how we approach our cities and places. The industry has risen to that challenge, bringing creative thinking and innovative design solutions to the fore to realise more resilient outcomes, with a focus on decarbonisation and nature enhancement.

“It's been a privilege to be involved with the changes we’re seeing today globally. In hindsight, I have found that short-term challenges or pivots in my personal career journey have provided me with long-term strengths. Stepping away from work at times to do other things, including going part-time while my children were young, offered experiences and opportunities to learn more about what I’m passionate about and diversify my skill set – though I maybe didn’t realise it at the time. Life’s circumstances are not constraints, and I urge all women and men to see the benefit in enjoying unexpected new directions and being patient.

“In my experience, professional success in the built environment sector is closely linked to realising connections between disciplines. Regardless of your area of expertise in the sector, I believe those who can mobilise integration and cross-industry collaboration will be best placed to be influential, and reach leadership positions.”

Emma Nicholson, principal sustainability project manager at Pick Everard

“It’s essential we work towards achieving equal opportunities in employment, positions of leadership and decision-making at all levels, and mentoring is a great starting point. For the last ten years, I’ve mentored women in the industry and thoroughly believe in this process as a way of delivering continuous improvement, so I’d encourage all companies to get involved in a mentoring scheme. 

“I also think it’s really important for companies to be ambassadors for STEM careers, helping to attract girls into the construction industry from a young age, which in turn should help to prevent a skills gap. Having a presence at career fairs, use of inclusive language in recruitment advertisements, and having these STEM ambassadors are all useful steps forward the industry can take.

“Making our sector a more inclusive place is something we should all be striving for, and it’s fantastic to have the opportunity to open new doorways for people entering our industry.”

Shirin Arnold, Industry Solutions Lead for Construction at Dropbox

Shirin Arnold, Industry Solutions Lead for Construction at Dropbox

Shirin Arnold joined Dropbox at the end of 2021 from Autodesk where she held several key positions in sales and product. She was a Technical Solutions Executive for the AEC industry as well as a Group Product Manager driving the BIM 360 Field Management solutions forward. Even though she holds a Master’s in Structural Engineering from Stanford University, she has always leaned towards the construction industry. Her interest in construction led her straight to a boots on the ground position with a major general contractor as a project engineer where her interest flourished. She has held various product management positions from Credit Suisse to Graphisoft where she has been able to continue to influence the construction industry.

 “When it comes to addressing inclusion in the construction industry, not only must we consider the barriers to entry but also the challenges around career longevity, with women leaving the sector at more than twice the rate of men, according to a report by Atkins

“Day-to-day work processes can often have a significant impact, especially for those with family commitments. This is where technology can directly improve accessibility by promoting flexibility and creating more diverse career opportunities. Cloud-based collaboration tools create centralised data repositories in which workers can easily access the files they need from anywhere at a time that suits them best. This better equips women with the capabilities to balance work and home life, providing the flexibility to structure their workflows to fit personal commitments. 

“But that’s not all. These types of workflow management tools, especially when enhanced by the latest advancements in machine learning and AI, can also help to automate routine tasks, improve efficiency, and free up more time to focus on value-added tasks that can greatly contribute to innovation within the business and accelerate women’s careers.”

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