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.

What is Whole House Renewables?

At Your Energy Your Way, we think that creating a low carbon home is so important it shouldn’t be done in a piecemeal way. We give advice on what renewables technologies are best for your home and budget. Here is an example from one of our customers.

The owner of this Georgian 6 bed house was keen to remove himself from the gas grid and make his home a show home for renewables.  The particular challenges we faced were:

  • the age of the property
  • the fact that it bordered a conservation area
  • the unsuitability of the house roof for PV

The first step was to check that the customer had carried out all suitable insulation measures.  This included double glazing throughout, loft insulation and draught proofing.  Despite this, the house still had a heat loss of 24kW at a design temperature of -2 degrees outside.  We discovered this through a room by room heat loss survey.

Our survey identified three things:

  1. The radiators were to small for a low temperature heat pump (running at max 50 degrees)
  2. The radiators needed upgrading even for a high temp heat pump (running at 60 degrees)
  3. We would need two single phase heat pumps to meet the heat load

As a result, our first step was to upgrade the majority of the radiators in the house, including some curved bay window radiators.

Solar PV and battery

Given the electrical demands of this system and the fact that the customer owned 2 electric vehicles, we suggested solar PV and a battery to help meet this demand.  The house roof was not suitable, so we installed the maximum solar PV installation (without incurring shading) on the garage roof as shown.

We used 8 x LG Neon All Black Mono PV panels, one of the highest output all black panels on the market at the time.

We also installed a battery  to enable the solar PV to be used outside of daylight hours. We couldn’t install a hybrid battery charger/inverter, so we put in a Solis Dual 2500 inverter in the garage (putting the lower placed string on a separate MPPT) and a GivEnergy 2.6kWhr battery in the house near the fuseboard.

Solar Thermal

There was a further south facing roof space available, but due to the conservation area surrounding the property the customer didn’t want any panels sitting higher than the level of the roof.  Therefore we suggested a Vitasol-300 3.03m2 evacuated tube solar thermal panel.  Solar thermal panels work well at all angles and from March to September will be able to provide the majority of the hot water for the customer reducing reliance on the heat pump and the electricity supply.

Heat Pumps

To meet the heat load of the property we installed 2 x Hitachi 6HP high temp heat pumps, each with an output of 14kW at design temperature.  Planning permission had to be granted for the install because 2 heat pumps are not permitted under permitted development.

EV Chargers

Finally, we installed 1 x 7kW EV Charger to charge the customer’s EV and 1 x 3kW EV charger to charge the customer’s plug in hybrid car with a much smaller battery.