Shevira Bissessor: Why Women in the built environment matter
Think of construction and most people think of men in yellow, hard hats. The idea of a female electrician, plumber, supervisor or even development manager on a building site is uncommon. But at Rosslyn Grove, in Nairobi, our development is being spearheaded by a female team, in a piece of leadership in Africa that resonates with mounting evidence that greater diversification leads to greater business success.
The construction sector has progressed in its gender diversification, but it still has a long way to go. A recent study by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics shows that women only represent 10.9% of all the people working in construction. This number shrinks to 1 in every 100 employees in front line positions. With the US Department of Labour estimating that women comprise 47% of the country’s workers, this means the US construction sector benefits from only 1.25% of women in the workforce.
Globally, the figure doesn’t look great either, although there has been improvement, albeit slow. Even in the professional services sector such as quantity surveying, female surveyors increased from 6% to 14% in the last decade, according to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (“RICS”). In Africa, RICS has found that 15% of its professionals are female with a 6% increase in qualified female surveyors in 2019. Research by Randstad, a Dutch human resource consulting firm, shows that women in construction management roles increased by 9% in the UK between 2018 and 2020.
Unconscious gender bias, limited training opportunities and negative perceptions of women in construction all contribute to the gender gap. Yet in its May 2020 report “Diversity wins: How inclusion matters” McKinsey & Co found that the most gender-diverse companies are 25% more likely to achieve above-average profitability than companies with less diversity.
McKinsey further found that the greater the representation, the higher the likelihood of outperformance. Companies with more than 30 percent women executives were more likely to outperform companies where this percentage ranged from 10 to 30, and in turn these companies were more likely to outperform those with even fewer women executives, or none at all.
As a female business leader and working with senior female managers in the sector, I’ve noticed a definite difference in how most great women leaders manage various personality types vs some of our male counterparts. A key reason for this difference in approach, I believe, is that women continue to be the nucleus of the household, regardless of their professional positions. As such, these women not only become adept at juggling various priorities but also at reading and engaging with individuals differently, bringing out the best in them whilst achieving the same end-goal. This skillset is noticeable in the built environment where project and deadline stress often require mentoring and transformational leadership as opposed to an autocratic approach.
Despite the evidence of greater profitability through diversity, Dutch HR firm Randstad found that women executives are more likely to occupy staff roles, at 14%, than line management roles, at 7%, compared to males, where 33% are employed as staff executives and 46% as line executives.
In this context, the teams responsible for the development of Rosslyn Grove in Nairobi, Kenya is a strong outlier to the norm. The 16 038 m2 Rosslyn Grove is a 90-unit diplomatic apartment and town home community development by Gateway Real Estate Africa (GREA) and Verdant Ventures on behalf of the United States’ Bureau of Overseas Building Operations. Gateway’s team of professionals and sub-contractors comprise 68 women on site, with 26 individuals skilled or semi-skilled and the balance as temporary workers.
These women are responsible for professional and technical services across the built environment scope, ranging from Development Management, Project Managers, Engineers and Quantity Surveyors to EHS Supervisors, plumbers, storekeepers, electricians and painters.
The development of Rosslyn Grove provides a further proof point for research showing better profitability through gender diversity, with the project nearing completion on time and within budget despite Covid-19 related supply chain challenges during construction.
In addition to having a female team driving the project, GREA and Verdant support the efforts of Buildher Kenya with funding and on-site training opportunities to improve skills development and empowerment of women in construction.
Buildher Kenya is a non-profit operation founded in 2018 to equip disadvantaged women in Kenya with accredited construction skills and is the only female focused organization registered to sit for the prestigious National Industrial Training Authority exams.
Although encouraging, one swallow does not make a summer and the built environment still has a long way to go to remove gender bias from the work culture. The female team at GREA and initiatives of Buildher Kenya demonstrate that if the corporate will and commitment is there, training programmes and mentorships catering specifically for women’s needs can go a long way in attracting female talent to the sector.
Shevira Bissessor is the Chief Operating Officer, Gateway Real Estate Africa.
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