Lessons from a Female Leader in Construction

Reflecting on International Women’s Day, our director Leah Robson, shares the lessons she has learnt:

I’ve been in the construction sector for 9 years and run my own business in it for 4, these lessons are written for current leaders, future leaders and their supporters.  I hope you find them helpful.

Lesson 1: Lead like You – Mostly

It is easy to feel that if you are running your own business, you must be a Richard Branson.  Male or female, you must be dynamic, flashy, conspicuously successful and surrounded by adoring team members.  Added to that, in construction there is a particularly macho version of the construction leader.  Loud, strident, combative and strong. 

I am none of these things.  My predominant style of leadership is consultative and collegiate.  I like to hear all sides of an issue before making a decision, I am keen on building bridges, making networks and working through issues with people rather than against them.

Overall, I find people in the construction sector respond well to this.  They like the different approach and feel valued and part of a partnership rather than a long top-down chain of main contractors and sub-contractors.

However, it can sometimes be a problem. Construction is an industry where too many people’s version of conflict resolution goes something like this – can I blame this problem squarely on someone else? Can I keep arguing until the problem gets fixed by someone else?  Even better if the person I am trying to blame is weaker than me. Try to be collegiate in that environment and you are quickly squashed.

My strategy for dealing with this is to control the controllables. Ensure that where I can choose who to work with – colleagues, suppliers, repeat customers – I find people who appreciate my main leadership style and respond well to it.  None of us can pretend to be something we’re not all the time, it’s exhausting and ultimately destructive.  If your leadership style is different to the dominant one in your industry, you will probably find plenty of people happy to embrace the change that working with you brings.

And for those times when your style just won’t get results?  Take a deep breath and act a part.

Lesson 2: Seize the Opportunities

It is true that my gender has opened opportunities to me that I wouldn’t have had if I’d been male. I used to feel guilty about this and something of an imposter, but I’ve now decided that since sexism acts in hidden ways to make my life more difficult, I’ll embrace the obvious ways that the current push for diversity helps me to achieve my goals.  So, I take every opportunity I can to show that as a woman in this field I understand the technology and the issues just as well as the men around me.  I’ve been interviewed on the Fully Charged Show and appeared on a panel at their Live event because they make a serious effort to have representative platforms.  I’ve also been interviewed for podcasts and on LBC.

The other opportunity we have as female leaders is the chance to help people understand what it’s like to be a woman in leadership so that they can help support the next female leader they come across.  Take for example The Nag.  The Nag is a female trope created over centuries where women were denied power in the home and the workplace. Without power, one of the ways women have learnt to get what they want is by constantly badgering people for it.   It’s exhausting work and makes everyone feel rubbish.

This history makes it hard for women who must ask men repeatedly to do the tasks they’re meant to do at work.  Women find themselves in an ancient role that has been theirs and they have been mocked for over the centuries.  As well as the frustration of asking repeatedly to get something done, they are worried about being seen as a nag and feel they have fallen into a trap they can’t find a way out of.

There is an easy way out of this.  When anyone must constantly ask you to do something at work, do one of two things – explain to them why you can’t or won’t do it; or do it.  Don’t just ignore the request, particularly if it comes from a woman because she will most likely be feeling rotten for having to repeatedly ask you. 

Lesson 3: Stick to the Agenda on Gender

The horrible and pernicious thing about sexism is that it is everywhere and nowhere.  We feel its effects but it’s like catching the wind when we try and pin them down.  Did that customer speak to me like that because I’m female, or just because they are rude to everyone?  Do men have to work this hard to get taken seriously? Why was he surprised when he realised how well I understand this stuff?

We will never know the actual answers to these questions, so what do we do about them? Three things:

Challenge

Firstly, however well or badly it comes across, we challenge the everyday sexism when it’s obvious and incontrovertible.  Like the time I was commissioning a heat pump in someone’s house as the removals men were bringing in the customer’s furniture. After being asked for the fifth time “Where do you want this love?” I snapped at the poor guy “just because I’m here and female it doesn’t mean I live here, I’m working here too, fixing the heating”.  Could have been less grumpy about it, but sometimes it needs to be said.

Embrace the Sisterhood

It’s International Women’s Day, so there are hundreds of events you can go to, webinars you can attend and blogposts like this to read.  My advice is to avoid most of them.  I don’t want events where a fantastically successful woman tells the rest of us how to do it.  It reminds me too much of when a previous employer sent all the women to a Work/Life Balance seminar run by a Senior Partner who clearly only coped with her workload and family because she had a Nanny. An expense out of reach for most of her listeners.

At those events I want to meet other women who are treading the same path as me, learning the same lessons and working out ways that we can support one another.  Then I want to continue to connect with them beyond that one session.

For example, I make it a practice to always Like and often Share social media posts by other women in the industry.  If every woman on social media did that, think how all our voices would be amplified.

In 1874 the London School of Medicine for Women was founded as the first female medical school in Britain because women were not being admitted to British Medical Schools.  In the UK in 2022 only 1% of plumbers are female, that’s 1,200 – 1,500 out of 120 – 150,000.  The main reason for this vanishingly small number is the almost impossibility of being taken on as a female apprentice in an industry dominated by one-man bands.

In a very small way, here at Your Energy Your Way, we want to start our own London School of Medicine for Women.  We want to take on a cohort of female trainees and give them on the tools and in the office experience of selling, designing and installing renewables.  Watch this space for our bond issue coming shortly to raise money to help us do this.

Give Yourself a Break

Being trailblazers isn’t easy and that just by being there and doing our jobs well, we are creating a path for others to follow.  You can’t do it on your own and as well as embracing the sisterhood as above, you need a group of supporters who believe in you.  I couldn’t do what I do without my business partner Pia, who is a friend and keeps me on the right road.  And my husband who is more enraged at the everyday sexism I face than I ever am.  Thank you to them both.

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