Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Women rulers

On my desk as I write this, is a wooden inch/cm rule, carrying on its reverse side the words Women rulers: 20th Century Architecture and Design followed by the names of 23 women (the first born in 1856 and the last in 1944) and their most significant construction achievements.
I bought the ruler in July this year in the magnificent National Building Museum in Washington DC, completed in 1887 as a monument to those who had survived the American Civil War and those who had not. In addition to administering and paying pensions, the building’s huge, light and airy Great Hall, was the venue for Presidential inaugural balls for many years.
Some eighty years later, unoccupied and threatened with demolition, the building was reprieved thanks to one of those ‘women rulers’, Clothiel Woodard Smith, whose report The Pension Building: A Building in Search of a Client recommended that it be converted to a museum of the building arts. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building is an award winning museum, with highly regarded educational and outreach programmes, constantly changing displays and has once again become a venue for great events.

So against a background of falling numbers of women at Fellowship level and at the top of organisations, let us hope that the tide may now turn. As one of the 0.9% of CIOB Fellows who is female, I am delighted that this year sees the election of Professor Li Shirong as not only the Institute’s first woman president but also its first international president. Dr Jean Venables is President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Ruth Reed is President Elect of the Royal Institution of British Architects and Janet O’Neill is President of the RTPI. Significantly, these three women run their own practices, as did Clothiel Woodward Smith, (and myself) drawing some interesting conclusions from the findings of the CIC Diversity Survey that very few women in construction are self-employed. Many of those that are, seem to achieve great things.

Worth the wait - and a proper look

In 1996 when the Latham Working Group on Equal Opportunities produced its report Tomorrow’s Team:women and men in construction, one of the few statistical sources available to the working group was a Construction Industry Council (CIC) report giving figures on the membership profile of a number of its institutions. So it is encouraging that 13 years on, the CIC has revisited the issue, and that the statistics gathered are more comprehensive.

The discouraging element of the CIC Diversity Survey Gathering and Reviewing Diversity Data on the Construction Professions, is that some professional institutions appear to have retained the deep resistance to providing data that was demonstrated in 1996. Then, as now, some bodies failed to answer requests from the Latham Working Group for information, others refused, expressing the view that asking for such information was intrusive and irrelevant.

Against this background, it is perhaps not surprising that the institutions with a traditionally high representation of women and with openness of information gathering have built on their critical mass and positive culture, demonstrating an increasing and proportionately very high rate of female membership. For example, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has grown by 8% to 31% since 1996.

However a feature that the 2009 CIC Diversity Survey authors did not comment on is the significant increase in female membership amongst two institutions that were almost off the scale 13 years ago. The CIOB has doubled its female representation since 1996 and the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) had less than 1% women membership in 1996, but has increased fivefold, something that deserves more acknowledgement from the authors than simply being described ‘only 5%’.

Although the CIC Diversity Survey quotes annual student numbers at the RICS falling from 4,700 to 2,400 between 1994 and 2001, this rose to 7,7782 in 2006 of which 27% was female. In the seven years that the RICS Raising the Ratio Task Force was operating (sadly and summarily disbanded last year and not visibly replaced) it produced excellent research, carried out amongst men and women, identifying the reasons for becoming surveyors, the reasons for leaving the profession and proposing ways in which the right people could be recruited, retained and developed. In addition to women student numbers increasing, the percentage of percentage of women chartered members internationally increased from 10% to 15%.

So what is needed to bring about a better gender balance in construction? Genuine commitment, openness and leadership from professional institutions, flexible and realistic working practices from employers and encouragement and visibility for those women and men who strive make a difference. Starting with the CIC Diversity Panel perhaps, who initiated the survey but who are not identified anywhere on the report or the CIC website.