Article

Is this a revolution?

2015 marks the first time in history that all three of the main Built Environment member organisations have elected female presidents coinciding in the same year. Jane Duncan (Royal Institute of British Architects President Elected), Louise Brooks-Smith (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) and Janet Askew (Royal Town Planning Institute) are all inspirational women who are bringing to the fore diversity and equality in the profession.  So does this historic event mean the start of a female revolution, in what is still a male dominated field?

Many topics were discussed at Women Paving the Way on 31st March 2015 including gender, equality and diversity, barriers including confidence and ways to succeed. The event sought to consider how women are taking on leadership roles in the built environment.

Tony Horrell, CEO of Colliers International UK & Ireland, announced at the event that Colliers has recently started a Women’s network. The new network is unique in that it is not only for employees, but for clients as well. The women in the real estate firm are also able to enrol on a Woman in Leadership programme. It is certainly positive to see such schemes coming to the fore.

This was the first of many initiatives which were discussed on the evening. Jane Duncan discussed RIBA’s #SeeMeJoinMe campaign on Twitter, a campaign which aims to celebrate women working in the construction industry by raising their visibility. Louise Brooke-Smith said that the RICS had also started a campaign called Visible Women.

The RTPI are taking a different approach, not focusing solely on gender but equality and diversity as a whole. This is perhaps because the RTPI has the largest female membership of the organisations at 35% and a long history of female presidents, with Sylvia Law as the first female president in 1974. Behind the RTPI are RIBA with 17% and RICS with 13%. With such low levels of women in these two professions, there is an apparent need for gender targeted campaigns.

The RICS are, however, also launching an Access Consultant Certification scheme for employers which will highlight firms who are committed to equality and diversity in the work place.

These schemes will no doubt level the playing field in the built environment solving issues such as unequal pay, which Louise Brooke-Smith highlighted was still an issue. The fight for equal pay has been an on-going issue since the Ford Dagenham plant strike in 1968. The strike of the Ford sewing machinists then lead to the Equal Pay Act 1970 introduced by Barbara Castle, also one of Louise’s heroes.

Louise suggested the fact that the issue of gender balance is being so heavily discussed, not only in the built environment but globally with the UN ‘He-for-She’ campaign, which is perhaps a sign that there is a revolution taking place. This can only be a good thing, and the rise of our sister networks Urbanistas, RE Women and WSCP is another strong indicator that women are having their moment.

It was positive to hear that gender biased ideologies have moved on, and there is no longer a need to apply for university courses as both a male and a female to be accepted, as Louise did when she decided she wanted to study Mining at Imperial College London.  However, as Jane explained there is more that can be done to make the working environment open to all with flexible working; an understanding that long hours are not possible if you have children, regardless of gender, but also considering that a work life balance is important.

The panel deliberated other barriers which face women working in the built environment, with confidence portrayed the most prominently. Janet has noticed a lack of confidence in her female students and considers this to be a barrier to success. ‘Confidence’ is a reoccurring theme in all Women in Planning events since the network’s inception in 2012 and is one of the reasons for the groups creation. Time and time again, we hear that if men consider that they know 50% of a job role they will have the confidence to apply, assuming they know enough and learn the rest on the job. Women apparently have the opposite view and consider that if they only know 50% of the job, it is not enough to apply and that they could not fulfil that role.

Confidence does not seem to be the only issue Janet has noticed; there is a lack of ambition in female students and this was also discussed at our joint International Women’s Day Event in March 2015. Women do not necessarily plan beyond having children, as they can consider it to be the end of their career. For some it will be the end of their career, but it should be known that it is okay to plan your career for as long as you want.

Both ambition and confidence go hand in hand; having the confidence in yourself will allow you to have ambition and realise it.

The panel provided advice on how to be more confident with the main tip being practice makes perfect but also support and training is required. Other advice included pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and taking opportunities given to you; whatever you do and whatever gender you are you need to be strong and resilient. Importantly, all agreed that you should not be frightened to say what you believe and not to stay silent about equality, an inspiring message for all.

Thank you to Colliers International again for hosting and sponsoring the evening.

By Charlotte Morphet, Co-founder, Women in Planning

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