Colleague Interview

International Women’s Day 2023: A Conversation with Sarah Keyte, HKA’s BIM & Digital Lead

HKA has aligned its ED&I objectives to the United Nations’ Sustainability Goals, and for International Women’s Day we want to give particular focus to Sustainability Goal 5 for Gender Equality.

With the UN’s Sustainability Goals in mind and their IWD theme for 2023 (DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality), we interviewed Sarah Keyte. Sarah joined HKA in 2020 and leads our digital information forensics team. She has been appointed as an expert witness in matters relating to Building Information Modelling (BIM) and 4D, and has supported experts in matters relating to BIM.

The United Nations’ theme for International Women’s Day 2023 is “DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality” – What does this mean to you?

After spending the past decade working in the construction industry, I now lead the Digital Information Forensics team at HKA, an international risk management and dispute resolution consultancy. I am excited about this year’s theme “DigitAll” because for me, digital transformation has been my refuge in my career in construction.

In my role at HKA, I work with our quantum, engineering, and delay expert witness teams to help resolve disputes. As a result of digital transformation, the world of construction law is evolving. Evidence is changing; built environment disputes are increasingly incorporating claims relating to building information modelling and information management. This is impacting construction litigation, arbitration, adjudication, and other forms of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) in all sectors of the built environment.

My role allows me to work with architects, structural, geotechnical, mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP), fire, process and chemical engineers, delay and quantum expert witnesses, as well as talented lawyers and dispute resolution practitioners. My route into construction law and dispute resolution was through digital innovation.

I am excited to see digital has a platform in IWD, as I know digital has a significant role in the fight for gender equality.

How did you begin your journey into a digital role?

In the past decade working in construction, I have worked in a variety of roles. However, they have all involved digital innovation.

For my undergraduate degree, I studied Architecture. I found hand-drafting construction details inefficient, so used CAD and BIM software to produce designs and visualisations. After gaining on-site experience while at university, I realised that building information modelling (BIM) could help improve communication, avoid on-site coordination issues, and prevent delay.

I also realised these skills could open doors and give me more options. Technicians can be site-based or office-based. This gave me the option to adventure onto live, complex construction sites, working “at the coalface”. It also gave me the option to work in clean comfortable offices and network with business leaders. Some roles I have worked in have given me a hybrid option of both site-based and office-based work.

In the past 3 years working at HKA, I have our digital services to respond to the changing needs of the dispute resolution industry. We use digital innovation to decode complexity, often working against competitors who do not have in-house digital capabilities.

How has digital helped you overcome gender inequality?

Prior to joining HKA, I have faced gender inequality in my career and I used digital capabilities to metaphorically “3D print” the missing rungs on my corporate ladder. I am thankful to be able to use digital capabilities to teach, work with lawyers and clients, and problem solve.

In the early days of my career working for contractors, when I saw my male peers were offered learning and development or networking opportunities that weren’t accessible to me (e.g. site visits, charity golf days or invites to the pub), I knew I had to use technology to make myself indispensable to decision makers in the businesses I worked for.

When I saw planners earn more than technicians, I implemented 4D software (a combination of BIM and schedules). By using 4D, I could help senior managers communicate construction methodology, win work, and add value. Eventually, I became a planner and continued to use BIM to help prevent delay. This also enabled me to work with all disciplines in live projects including commercial, safety, and quality managers.

Perhaps the best aspect of developing digital capabilities is how it has helped me network. Early in my career, I was anxious when I heard terms like “windposts” or “skyhooks”, I was desperate to avoid being a victim of a “tartan-paint” prank. To combat this fear, I exchanged BIM lessons with experienced construction managers.

In addition to combatting gender inequality, sharing digital capabilities helped me develop friendships with older wiser team members. Many of these men felt mystified by technology and were sometimes facing age discrimination or tech-shaming within the business. In exchange for teaching them how to use Navisworks to navigate models or helping them with digital capabilities, I have had wise, experienced construction specialists take me under their wing and help me to understand how to best manage risk in construction. These skills became incredibly useful when studying for an MSc in Construction Law and dispute resolution in 2019.

Digital skills can bridge the age and skills gap between the young and inexperienced, and the wise but one-finger-typing baby boomers. We can partner junior data analysts with experienced experts who seek to improve their data science capabilities and work collaboratively for the best client outcomes.

Thankfully, over the years, my focus on digital focussed less on surviving and shifted to thriving. Leading the digital team has opened even more doors and opportunities in my career.

How can the industry overcome the digital gender divide and break down bias going forward?

During my time with HKA , I have worked with some incredible women whose childcare needs have been accommodated by our employer. However, prior to joining HKA, there were many projects which lost out on female talent.

Every woman should be free to work in any role in construction, from operative, site manager, project director or CEO. However, thinking pragmatically, women who are beginning their careers in construction may wish to consider how digital can help them. For example, BIM can help users digitally rehearse projects. Much of the work required to design and coordinate models can be done remotely, which may offer the flexibility to bring more women into the industry.

Last year, HKA granted a paid internship to @Giwa Falilat, a Nigerian quantity surveyor, PhD student and new mother. Giwa was keen to gain industry experience in BIM and dispute resolution. The HKA digital team worked with Giwa remotely and flexibly to accommodate her needs as a mother. I found we learned as much from her as we taught her. I am yet to meet Giwa in person; however, I consider her to be of the brightest women in the industry.

The change will come, and hopefully one day, statutory parental leave will improve. But until then, we need to be the change we want to see in the world. We need to offer opportunities to young women that we wish we had at their age. We need to build networks so that women can be resilient to bias and challenges. We need allies, both in women, men, and LGBTQ+ communities.

How do you think gender diversity and equality can be enhanced within the construction or infrastructure industry?

Construction is an industry that is slow to embrace change. But in recent years, digitalisation has had a significant impact on the construction industry, transforming the way construction projects are designed, constructed, and operated.

I have witnessed the way the industry has adapted; I am optimistic that one day we will reduce the gender divide in digital and help improve diversity in the construction industry.

While non-digital improvements such as balanced parental leave would help women in the industry, digital innovation and technology is a critical change driver which will help resolve a variety of issues. Technology is critical to reaching decarbonisation of our built environment and our critical environmental, social and governance (ESG) targets.

Tell us three interesting facts about yourself.

My role allows me to travel. I am currently writing this in Doha, after speaking at an event here. Tomorrow I will be travelling to Dubai and I am looking forward to speaking at a future conference in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Last year I spoke at the American Bar Association conference in Madrid and had the opportunity to meet the King of Spain.

HKA has made a good start in offering digital internships and we have more to do in this space to progress our offering further.

Finally, to switch off from work, I am a keen boulder and rock climber. I have just started training for a trip to Yosemite after falling in love with climbing there several years ago.

This publication presents the views, thoughts or opinions of the author and not necessarily those of HKA. Whilst we take every care to ensure the accuracy of this information at the time of publication, the content is not intended to deal with all aspects of the subject referred to, should not be relied upon and does not constitute advice of any kind. This publication is protected by copyright © 2024 HKA Global Ltd.


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