Can you tell us about your career so far?
I joined Balfour Beatty in 2010 following a sandwich-year placement. I started off as a graduate engineer in the Midlands and spent five years working my way up through various roles, from graduate engineer to section engineer and so on, working on a variety of civils projects. I went through a long period of being either the only woman, or the youngest person in the room – usually both!
I transferred to Balfour Beatty Living Places as a project manager working in the design and build team heading up numerous schemes in Herefordshire, taking concept design through to delivery. During this role I went on to a secondment working as the then MD, Amanda’s Associate. This was a bit of a change of focus as it involved supporting her with strategic projects with the Board and budget reports and so on. It helped me gain my first insight into how things operate at board level. During this role, there was an opening within the business transformation team in the UK Construction Services, where I applied and was successful in joining. Here I worked with the transformation team on various projects, helping to implement and drive changes within the UKCS business. By November 2018 I was ready to go back into an operational role as Operations Manager, and I’m currently running a legacy project. So I’ve had a taste of lots of different roles in the past 10 years!
What first attracted you to Balfour Beatty?
Even back then, the brand name was really good. Amongst those of us studying engineering, Balfour Beatty was one of those businesses you just had to go and work for at some point. It was high-profile, had an international footprint, and its graduate scheme was really good. I also formed some good relationships on-site in my sandwich year, which persuaded me to not look elsewhere.
Have you ever had anyone mentor you, support you or give you an excellent piece of advice that helped you move forward / upward?
The role that I got with Amanda, the former MD, followed a period of her being my mentor before I joined Balfour Beatty Living Places. That was part of one of the early gender diversity initiatives we did. She’s very confident, but also really down to earth. She would personally go and talk to everyone working in the business, which was a breath of fresh air at the time – the business used to be hierarchical. She really guided me and she also gave me that great opportunity. I learnt a lot from her.
I’m now being mentored by Dean Banks, Chief Executive of the UK Construction Services business which I work for. I have worked under Dean’s leadership and watched us improve the business financially, operationally and now culturally. His advice has continued to encourage me to ensure that I’m always learning, pushing myself, progressing and developing my skill set. He encouraged me to go outside the business, to look at different sites, different industries, to get experience wherever I can. He’s a big believer in diversity of experience meaning that everyone brings something different to the table.
I did have challenges on-site when I started. You could see people listening when the men spoke and almost glossing over the women, or forgetting they were there. You felt you had to prove yourself before you got that respect. Looking back now, I don’t think it was sexism per se, just that they just weren’t used to it. I’m not making excuses for it, because why would I? But women were so rare.
My approach has been just to be good and try to excel at my job, and to normalise it to make things easier for other women coming behind me. When I look at the graduates and the younger women coming through on-site now, I can see the changes. There are so many more women on-site.
There was no PPE (personal protective equipment) that fitted when I started. The men’s stuff didn’t fit, but about a year after I started, they did start developing that. It’s so basic, but there just wasn’t a demand for it. It was weird at first – it felt like it wasn’t a world designed for women. It makes sense really that if you want women to come and work somewhere, you need to make sure you have what they need. I would get the best boots though, as I wasn’t limited by the catalogue, so there were some up sides!
A lot has improved a lot over the past 10 years, where now there is greater presence of women on-site and it’s beginning to be considered a norm. There is still a long way to go, but the changes are visible.
What’s the best thing about your job?
I love the different challenges. The variety really keeps me going. The job has such a range of different responsibilities, from managing the client, managing the team, making sure we’re working to a programme and in-budget, to finding a way through to resolve problems. We are always encouraged to be innovative and do things differently.
What has been your biggest career challenge to date?
When I was a graduate, the first project I was on involved a 100-hour possession to lift a railway bridge into place. It was very pressured in terms of time and accuracy. Failure just wasn’t an option as it results in huge fines. The pressure really hit me. I was so aware that we couldn’t get it wrong. The support was there from others, but I really heaped the pressure on myself as if the whole thing was entirely my responsibility. I really learnt a lot from that experience.
What’s your view on diversity in the construction industry? Is it important to you?
100%. It is hugely important to me. I feel really strongly that people shouldn’t be stereotyped into certain roles due to their gender, or for any other reason. I had a lot of challenges on a personal level in terms of people telling me not to go into construction and engineering because it wasn’t a place for women. We need to make sure we’re helping the younger generation to follow their passion and removing barriers to them doing so, rather than discouraging them. The industry needs those different viewpoints.
When I was a graduate, I was the only woman on the project. The lead used to take me, pretty much the least experienced person in the team, into meetings with the customer. I asked him why and he said that he wanted to get that different perspective, but also that simply by having me in there, it changed the ethos of the meeting. I found that really interesting, and of course it was all really good exposure for me in terms of my own development.
Are you involved in improving diversity e.g. mentoring, belong to an Affinity Network.
I’ve been one of the co-chairs of the Gender Equality network since it started. We’ve had a lot of traction and some really positive things have happened at Balfour Beatty in that space over the past few years. It’s been very rewarding seeing that happen and I have to say that it feels like a very different workplace even from when I joined 10 years ago.
I do think that, because people are so focussed on diversity, they can make the wrong decisions sometimes. For example, promoting someone just because they’re a woman isn’t the right thing to do in my view. They have to be good at the job or it isn’t going to work out. There are other ways of doing things if you think outside the box.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Not to take people’s stereotyping behaviour so personally or to let it knock your confidence. To understand that you can’t change everyone’s views. And also, that if they can’t appreciate you for your talents and skills, then that’s their problem not yours – you don’t need to change.