Digital allows us to reimagine what constitutes great leadership

Image: 127524479 © Elena Escalante | Dreamstime.com
Notions of leadership are tied in with gender and here, Paula Flannery advocates for a change.

We have an opportunity to reset the workplace as we know it. I’m not talking about flexible working: I’m talking about how we consider great leadership, and specifically, the role women can and should play in it.

Kate Waters from Women in Advertising and Communications Leadership wrote that collectively we need to give women a chance to lead post-pandemic. And to do this, we have to overhaul the gendered stereotype of what a leader is.

For many, the word ‘leader’ equals male. And this seems to be the case within organisations too, with women leaving roles at an alarming rate post-pandemic through lack of support or accessible routes available to them.

“We need to give women a chance to lead post-pandemic. And to do this, we have to overhaul the gendered stereotype of what a leader is.”

Paula Flannery

The pandemic derailed women’s progress in the workplace, with more downshifting their careers, more feeling pressure at work, and more feeling the impact at home. That’s because we do not operate in a system that supports women as much as men.

The good news is we now have a unique opportunity to reset the workplace across every industry, including construction.

For construction, it’s not necessarily just a question of a lack of female leadership, but representation. The industry’s make-up of women is relatively low with the Chartered Institute of Building reporting that only 12.3% of women make up the UK’s construction workforce. But there are positive signs of a change, with 37% of new industry entrants from higher education being women.

However, we must push for more and ensure that construction is fit for female leadership to flourish.  

Changing how we define leadership can have a big part in this. Because the more women are seen in construction, the more it will begin to attract talent and redefine the industry as being for both men and women – something that construction will benefit from.

Why construction needs women

Be honest. When I ask you to picture a typical construction worker, what image comes to mind? If it’s a man, then you’re not alone. That’s because, as highlighted, just over one in 10 construction workers are women.

For me, I’m lucky this isn’t the case. Not only do I work in construction, but my sisters do too. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t grow up thinking the norm was that only men work in construction.

When I worked in Sweden, however, it was completely different because they’ve always had women working in the sector. The country is first in the EU’s Gender Equality Index and its construction industry is similarly representative. During my time there, I remember asking about women versus men in the industry and someone replied: “What’s the difference?”

I want this for future generations of women exploring which industry to enter: to see women in construction as the norm. Not just for their representation, but for the future of the industry, which only stands to benefit.

For example, psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says women outscore men on every trait that’s integral to great leadership. These include empathy, integrity and coachability. He said: “If we recruited leaders on the basis of this, 70% of them would be female.” So why is the reality so different across many industries, including construction?

We need to break the idea of construction being a gendered profession. And, as luck would have it, this fight stands to benefit from another construction revolution underway: one of digitisation.

How BIM and MMC can promote female leadership

Technology can be a great leveller for what constitutes leadership in construction as it allows us to redefine what construction looks like and how it operates, whom we recruit and what they bring to a role.

Our own global study found that 60% of construction leaders say innovative technology is critical: tech such as BIM and the office-based roles that are able to bring crucial digital forecasting and design into everyday construction.

Yet, roles such as this that enable tech, and others including heading up document control to administering platform-based software, are often overlooked because they’re not physically seen. The office slips into the periphery when it comes to construction, but great progress is being made and the general perception of construction is beginning to change beyond just ‘boots on the ground’.

“Technology can be a great leveller for what constitutes leadership in construction as it allows us to redefine what construction looks like and how it operates, whom we recruit and what they bring to a role.”

Paula Flannery

Women tend to occupy these roles more than men, and so derisive views of technology end up marginalising them, when the reality is that they sit at the cutting edge of its future.

Modern methods of construction can help give women back their voice as it reaffirms the changing landscape of construction. If we encourage it, our methods move into the 21st century, and for a certain proportion of the industry, so too do their attitudes.

This might not be all that’s needed to turn the dial on female representation, but it can kick-start an attitudinal change when it comes to how women are listened to and heard in our industry.

What we can do to drive women in construction

It’s one thing for us to call for the right environment for female leadership in construction. But we must also ensure there is a proper influx of candidates and advertise ourselves, and our industry, better.

It comes down to education. When I think back to when I got started, I only knew about construction as a route for women because of my family. Many don’t have this.

To unpick a very limiting stereotype, we must get better at talking about the breadth of construction not just to one another but also in universities and schools where the next generation of female leadership will be. This means talking about the amount of digital innovation going on and ensuring individuals are not overlooked because of their gender.

If I didn’t work in construction technology, would I know about the extent of roles it has? I’m not so sure. We must talk to those looking to work in design and digital technology about the full scope of what it is they can do in this industry and show them that the leadership door is wide open.

By dedicating more resources and training, we can educate and redefine construction for the next generation. We can make role models more visible and show young talent that diversity exists in our industry.

If we do, it’s not just women who stand to benefit, but construction as a whole.

Paula Flannery is strategic product consultant, EMEA, at Procore.

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