The inaugural Inspire Summit brought together almost 400 construction, engineering & housing professionals to hear about the achievements of women blazing a trail in the built environment.
The event, hosted by award-winning journalist and broadcaster Marverine Cole, was attended by men and women working in the built environment, as well as students and school pupils hoping to join the industry.
Experts and industry leaders debated a wide range of topics from boosting apprentice numbers and tackling the skills shortage to creating a happy work life balance and driving organisational change.
There was much discussion over the public perception of the construction sector and the view from parents and teachers that it doesn’t offer attractive career options.
A third of teachers tell students construction is an unattractive career choice said Jane Nelson, executive director of Mears Group, who started her career as a trainee painter and decorator over 30 years ago.
Many of the speakers recounted negative attitudes when they were starting out and Nicky Harris of the University of Salford’s School of the Built Environment told how teachers tried to stop her from doing technical drawing, woodwork and metalwork at school.
“We need to value people who work with their hands,” said Claire Schimmer, chair of Women on the Tools, who also talked about her first experience onsite and the reaction from her male colleagues.
“We need to encourage parents to understand what construction is about,” said Christine Townley skills, diversity and young people champion.
Sarah Fenton strategic partnerships director (Midlands & North), CITB, said that the sector has come a long way since she started out but she agreed that some of the myths around the construction industry need to be dispelled. “The sector is doing some good work. It is just getting that message out there,” she said.
Alison Watson of managing director, Class of Your Own Limited, talked about the creation of the Design Engineer Construct course – the most innovative challenging and relevant secondary school curriculum development in recent years and explained that schools are constrained by the curriculum and have never been under more pressure to deliver on core subjects.
Questions were asked about how to encourage more women into the sector and about how to educate people about the opportunities that are available.
“There is an onus on construction employers to understand the barriers out there if they are to employ more tradeswomen,” said Jane Nelson who told delegates that Britain needs to hire 400,000 workers a year to keep building homes but women still only make up 1% of the trades workforce.
Delegates also heard plenty of success stories as women from a wide range of backgrounds spoke about their sometimes unconventional routes into the construction sector and outlined their career achievements.
Christine Townley told delegates about becoming a civil engineer, after being told ‘girls can’t do that,’ while Gillian Kelly talked about becoming managing director at M&Y Maintenance and Construction and founder of Your Red Dress Emma Nicholls asked: “why just fit in when you can stand out?” with an inspiring presentation on how to accelerate your career.
Women need to be more visible in the construction sector and the positive messages and stories need to be spread, said speakers, while people need to be less afraid of failure.
“Be unique and proud and make space to learn said Karen Armitage,” chief executive of Stafford and Rural Homes, who talked about creating a working environment where women can succeed and are prepared, encouraged and empowered to rise to leadership
The conference was rounded off with a Q&A with Sian Massey Ellis, the only female football match official working in the English Premier League, who talked about breaking down barriers and the importance of role models.
“If you don’t try you will never know whether you can do something,” said Sian.
As well as attending the conference, delegates had the chance to talk to a diverse selection of companies, which were showcasing their work in the exhibition space.
The day was rounded off with a drinks reception and dinner, giving guests the opportunity to network and to hear from guest speaker Hattie Hassan, who after retraining as a plumber in 1990, employed herself because no existing companies would take her on.
By 2006 her success meant she was inundated with cries for help from female would-be plumbers. Fast forward via a comedy stint at Edinburgh Festival and her company Stopcocks is the only national franchise for women plumbers.