What's it Like to be a Woman in Construction?

Rebecca De Cicco manages her own consultancy Digital Node, a consulting company focused on upskilling, training and education the construction industry in BIM and Digital Engineering methods. Rebecca often travels the world to support the business and has clients globally and a team supporting her from differing regions and locations. Digital Node are now working with key government clients globally to effectively support the implementation and framework for digital methods and BIM.

This is the fourth in our series of posts by women working in the construction industry about the issues they face. Please see the introductory post for why we are running it.

Image source Department of Transport licensed under Creative Commons

For many years I have tried to understand the difference in approach, methodology and purpose for Women in Construction. For me it was less about being a woman in construction rather the way that my career would evolve, due to my drive, ambition and personal goals. In my experience I was a happy successful architect for many years, not noticing this unconscious bias that so clearly presents itself often in my career today. I worked hard, I was talented, and I obviously had a strong drive to have a successful career. Coupled with the lack of women in senior roles in any of the companies I worked for I noticed a decline in the number of women around me when I started to progress in my career. As we have seen recently via numerous surveys delivered to industry there is a large problem with the number of women in leadership in Architecture and the wider construction industry.

I began to understand that the number of women generally in construction was low. I was lucky in design (as an architect) that women had good representation (or so I thought), but generally my experience was that there were many female architects, but few senior female managers. This was also fueled by the fact that I started to understand the impacts of BIM and Digital Construction methods, something I was always interested in and often very good at. This started young for me. I was such a digital fiend, loving how technology was shaping around me as I grew and saw the impacts of the World wide web and internet phenomenon. For me this engagement with technology wasn’t just about the software and tools, rather how the digital methods can ultimately help me to do daily tasks, and successfully to do my job better. This was clear to me when I entered higher education. I wanted to be an Architect, but my interest was more about how I could communicate an idea, present that idea, and then ultimately utilise the technology to make better decisions during the design process. To me this was the beginning of my BIM journey – but I felt that I just saw things different to most people in my field. Male or female.

As I moved into my career I was constantly challenged by this link I had with technology. Most of the roles I was employed within, I felt that most people just weren’t getting it and my seamless use of digital tools and processes (mainly which felt quite basic) were always a challenge to most of the other people I worked with. This therefore became apparent that I could make a living utilising these skills. I founded ‘Conceptual Node’ at that time – a small consultancy in Australia focused on Digitizing Construction. Conceptual Node was the start of what is now known as Digital Node which I will come to shortly. This was only after 2 years following completion of my university degree.

Once I came to realise my desire for travel was as strong as my desire to advance my career – London was the only option for me. Moving from Australia was a challenge, but I was presented with opportunities and knew that if I could make it work here, I could do it anywhere. I worked in a variety of Architectural firms and found it challenging, limiting and often frustrating. By default, due to my drive, I moved into senior roles where I saw a few things happen. I found that giving advice to my male counterparts, supporting projects with other members of the teams and general training was a challenge. I found that when I offered solutions they were generally disregarded, and I found that the lack of support as I moved into these senior roles was apparent and very clear. This wasn’t due to my lack of skills, but a very old school mentality that existed within the Construction industry. I didn’t see this clearly early in my career. Maybe because of a lack of experience, coupled with the fact I was in the design space prevented me to see these truths early. I was also not in management positions but as I moved up the corporate ladder, the lack of female representation was clear.

At this stage it was very clear I needed to start my own business (or rather evolve Conceptual Node). I knew it was always going to happen but by the lack of support (I felt) in industry I thought why not take the risk now. What worries me is that at that point, I felt it was the only way I could successfully work in Construction, to work for myself. A few other things occurred at this time that enforced just how ignorant and sexist some men could be in the Construction industry. This was very clear to me and working for myself I felt I could avoid these unpleasant truths.

As a business owner, I have found a few indicators of the realities of being a women in Construction (and especially BIM). These include:

  1. Training is tough. I will always have one person (male/ white) in the room who will question EVERYTHING. It seems to be a common problem, but almost feels as though the unconscious bias of not taking a women seriously is a real problem. I even had one person in one of my courses continue to belittle that as a female and in my 30’s I couldn’t possibly have the same experience as him.

  2. Leadership meetings are interesting. When I attend meetings, I feel there is a huge difference attending alone, in lieu of when attending with another person (male). I have been told in the past that it’s possibly a personal view or maybe I am too sensitive, or I misinterpret things. Utter bollocks! I know the feeling exists with other women, as I have shared these stories with other women who knowingly nod and always agree.

  3. Events. I attend A LOT of BIM events. I am generally a minority and have attended industry awards dinners with the same problem. Jokes aren’t funny when we joke about why it’s hard to be a woman in the construction industry. We don’t ALL want the same things. The world is a big place and there are many women in the world who are driven by different things.

I feel that the problem is not about my personal experiences but by the fact that too few women speak up about some of the things they have experienced. Many women feel it is detrimental to their careers to discuss the unconscious bias that exists. I challenge this. I want to hear from as many women as I can about these real-life concerns and the realities of being a women in Construction. Why wouldn’t we talk about it?

I founded the Women in BIM initiative with this as a priority. We need to support each other. We need to discuss the challenges and benefits and have a platform where we can ask each other questions without being judged. At the early stages of my career I felt I couldn’t ask these questions. I felt silent in asking questions that maybe I shouldn’t, having a fear that I would be perceived as a not smart enough. Unfortunately many of the women I have spoken to have expressed the same concern. When I attended an event for Women in Technology only last week at Autodesk University in Las Vegas, this was a common theme.

I love Construction. I love Technology. I am passionate about ensuring we have the skills, capacity and diversity in our industry to move it forward. We need to acknowledge the challenges we face as Women in Construction, but also encourage Women to embrace these challenges, be honest, stand up for themselves and honestly talk about our challenges and experiences. If not for the industry today but for young women desperately searching for role models in our industry. They need us to be honest in order for them to be able to embrace their careers, encouraged to be able to support themselves and others, and ensure that young girls acknowledge and understand, they can be, do and succeed in anything at all that drives them.

Rebecca De Cicco is the director of Digital Node, a BIM based consultancy working with clients globally to support digitisation of the Construction industry. To find out more about her and her organisation follow her here: @digital_node @becdecicco


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