IWD 2023: Breaking the inner glass ceiling

A Q&A for International Women’s Day 2023 (IWD 2023) with Nicky Rance, project director at Sir Robert McAlpine

Can you outline your career and how you got to where you are today?

When I settled on civil engineering at school, I wrote to many engineering and construction companies and was lucky enough to be taken on by Sir Robert McAlpine. That was 25 years ago, and I’m still with Sir Robert McAlpine today.

They sponsored me through university, which meant I had work experience every summer. After university, I was then hired as a graduate engineer, and never looked back. I worked through what I would call a fairly natural progression, gradually taking on more responsibilities from a project point of view. As a graduate engineer I was getting to grips with site work and the industry.

“We need more women coming through so that those behind them can understand that the career they want to pursue is possible”

The next progression was package engineer – initially smaller and more straightforward packages, such as block work or decorating, before progressing to larger and more complex packages, such as steelwork and cladding. From there I moved on to section engineer, managing an area of a project, and from there construction manager, as it was known then. As construction manager I was effectively number two on a project, helping the project manager with the general running of the site, but with an overall responsibility for the construction side. I was then promoted to project manager before progressing to project director in 2019, which is my current role.

Why did you want to go down the path of engineering?

I knew that I didn’t want to be behind a desk all day and wanted my career to produce something tangible. Construction seemed like the ideal opportunity to be in the thick of it, producing something that I could point to as I walked around a city. Being able to create something lasting for the future is what I think is great about this industry.

Do you feel like you have broken the “glass ceiling” and if so, what was your secret?

I have never really experienced the traditional glass ceiling, as I have always had opportunities to progress. But I’m a member of the Women Leaders Association (WLA) and its founder, Sandra Pinnington, wrote about an inner and outer glass ceiling, and the inner glass ceiling is something I can identify with. I think a lot of people, and certainly a lot of women, probably do too. It’s a different mentality, which too often can mean limiting yourself.

But I’ve certainly broken the inner glass ceiling that I once had, and that comes with gaining industry experience and growing confidence in what you do. Becoming chartered has also really helped that, as it recognises your competence.

Are there any ways you feel it has been an advantage to be a woman in construction?

It’s a misconception that the industry is full of old-fashioned attitudes, but it is still predominantly male-orientated, which means that – as a woman – I feel my face is probably more memorable and stands out more. I still work hard to earn respect, but once I have built that relationship, I think people are likely to remember me because there are less women in my position than men.

Being a visible, successful woman in construction is also a positive. It’s hard to be what you can’t see, and we need more women coming through so that those behind them can understand that the career they want to pursue is possible.

What advice would you give to young women starting out in construction?

Be yourself. We talk about being authentic a lot in the WLA. Don’t feel you need to conform to be something or someone you are not. Know what values and strengths you bring to the table and use those attributes to the advantage of yourself, your team, your project and your business.

And don’t be afraid to speak up. Have the confidence to ask questions. Trust your intuition and voice your opinions because you are more likely to be right than wrong.

Finally, build relationships. Construction is a people-orientated career, and so much is about communication. You think it’s a vast industry but you will come across the same people time and time again, so it’s valuable to invest in maintaining relationships.

How can men in the industry help to achieve a better gender balance in the sector?

By making sure they are treating people as individuals and keeping equity front of mind. They need to focus on ability, strengths and competence, and be supporters of the women coming through who show the right attitude and drive. We are all conscious of the current industry skills shortages, so why not tap into the whole talent pool rather than half?

Outside of gender equality, what other issues do you think the construction industry faces and what are the solutions?

What comes straight to mind is the skills shortage. We have shortages of skilled, talented people in all parts of the industry and it leads back not just to gender, but also to more diversity in ethnic backgrounds and abilities. We need wider recognition that everyone has got their own skills and attributes they can bring to a project by being diverse.

Skills shortages can also lead to quality issues, because you may not have enough people with the right competence, experience and training to produce the right quality of work. And many quality issues can create safety problems. So much has progressed with health, safety and wellbeing in the past few years, and everyone is absolutely on board with keeping safety a priority. But it feels like not enough people are always taking quality as seriously.

There are discussions being had on and off, but it’s harder to make the quality message stick because of the often lack of immediacy to quality issues. But that’s something I’m very keen on – making sure we have the right culture about quality, taking pride in your work, getting things right the first time, as well as making sure projects are safe for everyone.

This year Construction News and New Civil Engineer are once again joining forces to champion the role of women in construction and engineering. The Inspiring Women in Construction Awards and conference will take place in London in October.
Enter the 2023 awards and/or book your place at the event

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