Pastries and the patriarchy

Group shot of attendees for INWED in Max Fordham London office.

Excited chatter, coffee cups clinking, the aroma of a freshly baked cinnamon swirl - this was the atmosphere in our London office last Thursday morning as we hosted colleagues and collaborators for a breakfast to celebrate International Women in Engineering Day (INWED).

In an industry where men make up more than 85% of the workforce (Statista, 2024) it’s easy to feel a bit outnumbered. The INWED breakfast aimed to create some connections between those in the gender minorities in construction, and our discussions certainly provoked some food for thought (beyond the aforementioned pastries).

It’s a topic that’s close to my heart. I co-chair the Women and Minority Genders (WAMG or wham-gee!) network at Max Fordham, where we try to create a space for those in gender minorities to feel safe and supported, to speak up about the inequality we face in the industry and to influence the practice’s actions to address it. At times, the day-to-day experience of work leaves me feeling like one of the few. This network brings me a sense of community; something I believe is crucial to retain our WAMG colleagues.

Back to the breakfast – how do the attendees feel about their careers in construction? Well, in a modern world where pin-ups of 'page 3' on the walls of construction site offices would no longer fly (a genuine experience from a colleague at the breakfast), there was a sense that progress absolutely had been made towards equality, but in its wake, sexism has taken on a less overt, and more insidious form.

Today, it’s harder to pick apart the subtleties of exclusion and easier to convince yourself it’s imagined. One example given by one of our guests at the breakfast was feeling disregarded at meetings and being uncertain whether it’s because of gender or level of experience: do I feel ignored because I’m a graduate or a girl? Someone else mentioned a similar feeling when being given tasks they felt were more administrative than technical: would a male peer have been given the same work, or am I being paranoid?

Of course, there were plenty of the more cliché experiences raised too: feeling like respect (particularly on-site) needs to be earned where it’s a given as standard for male counterparts, or the assumption that you’re less knowledgeable because of the way you look. Many said they felt they had to change to a more assertive tone for their opinions to be valued, when in fact qualifying statements (like ‘I think..’ or ‘The way I see it…’, typically used more often by women) demonstrate there’s space for differing perspectives and earn trust.

On the other hand, there certainly was a sense that the tide is shifting in consultancies, particularly in more junior roles, and we also heard some heartening, personal experiences with allyship – colleagues stepping up to support peers when they witnessed exclusionary behaviour. Acts like this are an important part of keeping a diverse workforce - if a colleague goes out of their way to advocate for you, it’s unlikely to be soon forgotten. We have a collective responsibility to support each other and check ourselves against the bias we can all fall foul of - irrespective of gender, we’re all learning.

Ultimately, I left our event feeling energised. Chatting with engineers who look like me is an empowering way to spend a morning and though we’ve far to go, the trend feels positive. I encourage everyone reading this to reflect on the women and people of minority genders who they work with: what particular challenges they might face, how their approaches differ from your own, and why that is brilliant.