Monday, 28 April 2008

Role models and rebellion

When Vicki Treadell, the British Deputy High Commissioner in Mumbai (and the only woman Commissioner in the Asian sub-continent) visited London last month, the indefatigable Pinky Lilani OBE, successful businesswoman and Chair of the Asian Women Awards, reacted with customary speed and enthusiasm. Within days, Pinky harnessed the resources of Caspian Publishing’s diversity division to organise a drinks reception for Vicki. “I only heard a week ago that she was going to be here,” said Pinky, “but I was determined to gather together as many women in business together as I could to meet her.”

When I joined the crowd of women from business, commerce and law gathered at the Ernst & Young's offices next to City Hall on a blustery March evening, Pinky told me why she was so determined to welcome Vicki Treadell. "I visited India with a trade delegation in January, and led a meeting looking at the increasing importance of women in the economy, "she said. "We were given such support from Vicki that I felt it was important for her to meet businesswomen on her visit to London."

Vicki’s career began when she answered a crecruitment advertisement for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Initially looking for a job to fund her gap year, she quickly realised that the FCO could give her the career she really wanted. Her diverse background caused some confusion though. Born in Malaysia, of a Singapore Chinese mother and a half-Dutch, half-French father born in Ceylon, she settled in Britain with her family at the age of eight. She told us that her head of department at the FCO, David Gore-Booth, remarked on her first day, “I am confused — how can you be a British diplomat?”

Undeterred, Vicki worked in the Economic Relations Department in London before her first overseas posting, which was a challenging one for a woman - Islamabad in the early eighties. Then followed four years in Kuala Lumpur before moving back to the FCO in London to work on policy issues for Western Europe and Latin America.

Seconded at a senior level UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), the British government’s overseas commercial arm, Vicki Treadell was determined to get a truer picture of the commerce and industry of the UK than can be seen from the rarefied environment of Whitehall. So she spent three years with the North West Development Agency. Living and working in Accrington, Lancashire, she says, taught her a great deal about what it takes to run manufacturing companies.

This down to earth approach is proving invaluable in her role in Mumbai. “About half of what I do now is about business,” she said. “I'm there to help UK plc capitalise on opportunities in India, and vice versa.” Delegates from all sectors of UK business arrive every week and she tries to help by arranging introductions and sometimes lobbying officials for legal reform. 'Where we see a political issue not helpful to UK industry, we'll push for change,' she says.

Asked why she felt that public service was the career for her, despite her keen interest and support for business, Vicki told us, “I went into public service to rebel against my parents, who retired young after successful commercial careers. ”

She went on to recount another example of rebellious youth. It seems that older Indian women have great regard for the UK, its traditions and its values but their daughters and nieces are looking to the USA as the place to be and the place that delivers. “We got sick of hearing how wonderful Britain was, reading Jane Austen and Shakespeare,” they say, “so we are rebelling against tradition to find our own heroes.”

A lesson here for those promoting UK plc. The British film industry may be doing good (and well deserved) business with crinolines, bonnets and classic drama, but we need the diversity and determination of women like Pinky and Vicki to show the reality of today's Britain and encourage young women to make bold career choices.

Caption: Pinky Lilani (left) with Vicki Treadell in London, 5 March. Photograph courtesy of the The Telegraph, Calcutta.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Phwoar, what a corker!

There I was, sitting in the Housing Forum conference this week, listening to the recurring theme of the difficulty in finding skilled people to deliver better quality homes, when scorching down the ether on to my Blackberry came the latest example of the ConstructionSkills approach to promoting careers in construction.

It was an advertisement in The Sun newspaper featuring a well endowed young woman in skimpy vest, hard hat, strategically positioned tool belt and Black & Decker at the ready.

'Are you ready to build a reputation?' ran the headline.

Was she one of the few young women responding to the £500,000 ConstructionSkills marketing and promotion campaign, I wondered. One who had found one of those elusive work placements on a building site? (See Women on the tools below)

Of course she wasn't. She was a photographer's model, tempting young people between the ages of 17 and 22 to enter for the SkillBuild competition to find the best builder in Britain. Ah, I get it, she must be the prize for the lucky winner. I jest.

The only good thing about this story is that Mike Bialyj of ConstructionSkills was not only attending the same conference, but was sitting on the Question Time panel. I asked whether such advertising was an appropriate way to recruit and attract more of the right people - including women.

Judging by the reaction of many in the audience, not to mention Mike Bialyj's fellow panellists, the ConstructionSkills ad was a big mistake. Initially defending it on the basis that it was good to include a woman to promote construction, Mike conceded that he had not seen the ad before it was printed and that on reflection, it was inappropriate. He apologised.

Come on ConstructionSkills, there is little point in spending money recruiting more young people, when colleges are full and employers unwilling to give work placements. There is even less point spending money on inappropriate advertising to young women, when evidence shows that the average age of women interested in construction training is around 30.

Finally, if you are going to feature women in advertisements, please use real women working in construction, talking about what a great job it can be. As Charmaine Young, of St George Regeneration pointed out at the conference, she could have provided some great examples

Monday, 14 April 2008

Mystic McWilliams

Doug McWilliams of the Centre for Economics and Business Research is that rare creature - an economist who makes the subject not only intelligible, but also entertaining. Taking his traditional lunchtime speaking spot at Simons Group annual client get-together the other day, he unabashedly acknowledged that in 2007 he failed to predict the credit squeeze. "I always thought bankers were the least credit-worthy individuals," he confessed, "but I was surprised that they wouldn't even want to lend to each other."

Doug predicted that post the Beijing Games, China would experience a slow-down, albeit with growth dropping to a still enviable 6%. The UK economy would suffer prolonged sluggish growth, rather than a recession As for UK construction, his view was a flat 2008, a flattish 2009 and a lift in 2010. Invest in high rise commercial property, came the advice - it gives plenty of scope to jump!

Women on the tools

A dispiriting announcement from ConstructionSkills, which despite spending £500,000 on a dedicated recruitment drive, has failed to meet its 2007 target for attracting women and ethnic minorities into the construction trades. Last year, the national body signed up only 299 such recruits, not only way below the target of 463 but also 22% lower than the number recruited in 2006. (Building magazine, 11 April)

According to the ConstructionSkills report, part of the problem is getting employers to provide work placements for diverse recruits. This is hardly a revelation to anyone who has worked on projects to attract women into the industry. Way back in 2002 Building Work for Women (BWW)was launched to work crack the problem of getting site placements and jobs for women to complete their NVQ training– and it did just that. All bar one of the women (many of whom were from ethnic groups) were found that vital 13 weeks site experience and were offered permanent work.

Tragically, BWW came to an end with the demise of its creator Women’s Education in Building, which closed for lack of funds after 20 years of training more construction tradeswomen in its modest unit under Westway than the whole of ConstructionSkills across the UK. Just imagine what £500,000 put towards this work might have achieved.

In the meantime, Women and Manual Trades (WAMT) has picked up the baton and is reinvigorating BWW with the support of original funders the London Development Agency. Let us hope that the commitment to attracting more women is reflected more practically than paying for expensive advertisements in fashion store changing rooms.

Afterthought: If ConstructionSkills has seen a 22% drop in women and ethnic minority recruits, yet the number of tradeswomen remains at 1.3% for the second year, who is delivering apprentices in sufficient numbers to maintain that overall figure? Answers on an email please.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Breaking the mould

Escaping from rain-drenched, traffic clogged Whitehall on a blustery March morning into the high colonnades of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office marked the start of a great day organised by the Financial Mail’s Women’s Forum. Up that wonderful grand staircase, (memories of Meryl Streep in the film Plenty, losing her mind before mystified diplomat husband Charles Dance), along the beautiful tesselated corridors (very tricky in stiletto heels) and into the sumptuous Locarno Suite.

There, under the glorious barrel vaulted ceiling and huge chandeliers gathered some 150 head teachers, of girls’ schools in the state and private sector, to hear leading women from business, politics and public life recount their experience of making it to the top. The topic was one close to my heart, “Are today’s bright young women getting the best career advice and achieving their potential?”

Debating the answers and more importantly, coming up with some practical ideas was the objective of Breaking the Mould, a conference organised by the Financial Mail with City of London School for Girls and St Albans Girls' School, Hertfordshire. The aim was to inject some imagination, excitement and verve into careers advice at school, and to raise the aspirations of young women heading for university and into the workplace.

Baroness Hayman, the Speaker of the House of Lords, set the scene, Theresa May swept in to deliver the pre-lunch lunchtime address and television’s Clive Anderson chaired the last afternoon session. In between the Financial Mail’s dynamic editor Lisa Buckingham encouraged spirited debate and kept a range of speakers on their toes, includingTerri Dial, group executive director of Lloyds TSB, Karen McCormick, chief executive of Cheshire Building Society and Sara Murray, MD of Buddi and founder of

I was the sole construction industry representative, speaking in the first session entitled Challenging the male domain. I shared the platform with three impressive and charming women: Judy Clements, director of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, Natalie Ayres, a former director of Microsoft and now an entrepreneur and Gill Evans, detective inspector from the Metropolitan Police.

What a day it was – a heady combination of entertaining tales from impressive women, lively debate, tough talk and plenty of humour – all done with great style. In the evening speakers and delegates were hosted at a reception in the House of Lords by the redoubtable and charming Lady Howells to see young winners of the Breaking the Mould competition receive their £1,000 awards. Particularly interesting were Nicola McFayden, 14, from Lanarkshire, who developed a product to prevent deep vein thrombosis and Yasmin Hilder, 13, from Cornwall, devised an ecofriendly toothbrush and 11 year old Mia Radkiewicz, from Hampshire, invented a disposable coffee cup with a temperature strip.

What next? Well, I have had three invitations to speak at girls’ schools about the construction industry and connected a head teacher with a contractor to talk about work experience and site visits. I also met a young woman who had originally trained as a motor vehicle mechanic, become a teacher of English and drama and who had volunteered as a careers teacher to ensure that pupils at her school really knew about the choices they had. So she is an ideal contact for the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET and hopefully will be supported in the work she is doing.

(Those who share my passion for historic buildings and would like to know more about the Locarno Suite and its rescue go to the FCO website.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Listen carefully - I will say zis only once....

A story about George Wimpey Homes taking the novel step of banning wolf-whistling on their sites in Bristol was seized on with enthusiasm by the media today. Richard Goad, the housebuilder's sales and marketing director, announced that wolf whistling was banned on all six sites in the area and remarked, "I know lots of women don’t mind it – my wife is thrilled if she gets a whistle, and she’s not happy about me bringing this measure in – but it does make many women feel uncomfortable."

When reading the piece, a wave of deja vu washed over me. I was sure that I had heard this story before. A quick Google produced a a rush of hits - including a Woman's Hour feature back in 2001 after a couple of builders proposed to stop pursing their lips at passing women.

But one particular entry caught my eye. Splashed all over the BBC News on this very same day last year was the very same Richard Goad, announcing that wolf whistles were banned on all George Wimpey Homes sites - in South Wales. "The reality is that nowadays more and more women visit our sites looking for a new house because many are in a position to afford to buy on their own," said Mr Goad in April 2007 .

Why ban wolfwhistles across the country when you can repeat the headline every Spring - especially in a fragile market?

Building magazine
4 April 2008