A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to the Construction News Inspire Me workshop in Leeds. This nationwide campaign has been developed to encourage women to seek leadership roles in the construction industry, to empower women with the knowledge and confidence to advance their careers, and to positively promote gender neutrality in the industry.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and with an extremely busy diary, I was wondering if this was going to be my best use of time and very nearly didn’t attend. But I’m glad I did. It was a half-day session, with so much content compacted with indispensable career and business advice.

We heard from Holly Price, director at Keltbray Group; Jayne Little, MD at Skills 4; and Diane Thornhill, Arup’s HR director – Three excellent speakers who shared their experiences, their journey to the here and now, and a fantastic interactive session on personal performance and self-image within the workplace.

Personally, I found the most interesting discussion of the day came from Diane Thornhill, who provided insight into how the organisation has been working towards a more equal gender balance since the 1970s and the obstacles they have faced and overcome along the way. A key element of this journey has been to understand and recognise the ‘unconscious bias’ that each and everyone one of us carries to one degree or another.

Unconscious bias occurs when we make judgements and assessments of people and situations without us realising. It happens all the time. It develops very early in life, as we grow and learn from our parents, teachers and peers – an example being that girls wear pink, boys wear blue. Without training, many of us carry these unrecognised biases throughout our lives and working career, negatively influencing our perceptions, and affecting our judgment and decision-making, specifically about a female’s ability to enter a traditionally male-dominated sector.

Arup has addressed this bias through training sessions implemented at board level and have now been cascaded down through the ranks.

A panel discussion followed, with a variety of questions and observations from the floor linked to related topics:

Positive discrimination - it’s important that companies aren’t hiring a variety of genders, sexualities and ethnicities purely to tick boxes – they need to be included as part of the team and the workplace culture must shift for the benefit of the industry, not just because of targets.

Flexible working, maternity, paternity, the wish for shared childcare often responsibilities and how it takes ‘mums’ longer to reach their optimum career position due the break they have had to take to raise a child.

Ultimately, to address the gender imbalance in the construction industry, we have a long way to go to change the mind-sets of men and women alike. We need to work on ensuring those biases aren’t set from a young age, that professional services within the construction industry are promoted to girls and boys at school, and we don’t (unconsciously) discourage, and positively encourage pursuing a career in the sector irrespective of gender.

It was my first time attending one of Construction News’ Inspire Me regional workshops and, overall, it was a fascinating and useful day. The event gave me lots to think about when it comes to addressing the gender imbalance.

What did occur to me was that everyone in the room was on board; but there were not many, if any, senior management/board level people in the audience. This was a shame because ultimately, any change we seek in our organisations will come from the top.

If you get the opportunity to attend, I would recommend it to everyone – especially the boys!