Breaking the mould in the Middle East – how women can succeed in the construction industry

Attitudes towards women in the workplace are changing in the Gulf states – and the unlikely combination of technology and empathy can accelerate this transformation, according to pioneering female figures in construction.

How women can succeed in the industry was the theme of a webinar on 22 June 2023 jointly hosted by global risk mitigation consultancy HKA and Reed Smith, the international law firm.

Acknowledging the positive changes in the region over recent years, HKA Partner and webinar moderator Clare Lavin explored the enabling factors and remaining barriers with three women who have broken the mould while forging careers in the sector.

Digital’s empowerment

Jessika Nicolas – Regional Manager for Environment & Sustainability at KEO, and a specialist in Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) – made the case that technological change was shifting women in back-office roles to the forefront of construction projects.

Digital technologies are empowering change for the growing number of women with STEM-based expertise. “The tools have pushed gender out of the equation,” she said, evidencing that intellectual power now outweighs physical strength.

Atheel MallAllah, Senior Electrical Engineering Manager with Crown House Technologies, agreed, citing the female leadership of digital engineering within parent company Laing O’Rourke.

Jessika also affirmed the importance of emotional intelligence. Having attained management positions, women were able use empathy and kindness to strengthen team performance. These ‘female traits’ – previously perceived as weaknesses – helped to “build a team, open communication, trust and respect,” she noted.

When “everyone has space to speak”, she added, team leaders could bring out the best from different minorities and personalities, leading to better work and alternative strategies that differentiate companies in a highly competitive market.

Amanda Clack, HKA Partner, Regional CEO, EMEA and a former winner of an accolade for kindness in leadership from Women for the Future, said: “Kindness costs absolutely nothing. It’s a key skill for any leader, male or female.” As projects are all about people, kindness is also fundamental to creating a good project culture.

Change is coming

Turning to barriers for women in construction, actual and perceived, the panel acknowledged the ongoing challenges but were united in optimism about the future.

Atheel MallAllah faced enormous difficulties in several posts in Gulf countries following her arrival from Iraq in 2006. Having changed jobs amid recession, hard-earned recognition came when, after a year supervising labour on site for an Abu Dhabi MEP company, her male boss admitted his mindset regarding women in the workplace had changed. Joining Laing O’Rourke was a more significant turning point. Over the last 14 years, she has advanced within the group to leadership roles on iconic projects.

This experience confirmed Laing O’Rourke’s commitment to gender equality, and its gender diversity action plan target of parity across its international workforce by 2033. However, anecdotal evidence from new female recruits in the Middle East suggested this was still far from the norm. For example, a new construction manager had never before seen so many women in a construction firm in the region, while a health and safety specialist had sent her CV to more than 30 companies, only receiving a single invitation to interview, from Laing O’Rourke.

Modest measures

The panel offered some recommendations for increasing female recruitment and retention, and advice for women striving to succeed in the construction industry:

  • Companies need a clear code of conduct on gender equality, but managers must also ensure its implementation at every level of the organisation.
  • On sites, women should be offered special support if necessary – including a male ‘buddy’ – especially before cultural change takes root within the labour force.
  • Flexible working should be the industry-wide norm alongside adequate maternity leave and pay entitlement.
  • More women leaders and role models – and an industry spotlight on them and progressive employers – will help accelerate wider progress towards gender equality.
  • Aspiring women must challenge themselves and each other to ‘be the change’ by coming up with the solutions to system blocks, while also ‘being themselves’ and remaining authentic.
  • Female professionals in construction share the duty to inspire and encourage other women and the next generation.

Elaborating on this final message, Amanda Clack stressed that it was a privilege to be working in the built environment, improving the world for society. Her ask was that everyone working in the built environment should share their passion for their work with the next generation to help encourage top talent into the sector.

“We need storytelling for the next generation. Go out and talk to someone under 18 about why you love your job.” She added: “Climb the ladder but take others with you,” noting that the industry needed more women like her fellow panellists.

Aptly, the next webinar in the series (see below) will focus on the importance of mentoring for the advancement of women in construction.

* September 2023 – Webinar #3: Pay it forward – why mentoring and male allyship matter for women in the construction industry.

Commenting on the series, Michelle Nelson, Partner at Reed Smith, emphasised that it was crucial to inspire others through experience and enthusiasm – and demonstrating what success looks like helps others achieve it.

Alison Eslick, Senior Associate at Reed Smith, who will moderate Webinar #3, said: “In our first two webinars, we heard from women at the top of the industry on attracting and retaining female talent. In our final webinar, our panel will share their experiences, both as mentees and mentors, and consider how the industry can better embrace mentoring for the benefit of female talent”.

Links to the webinar recordings:

Webinar #1: Attracting and retaining female talent in the construction industry

Webinar #2: Breaking the mould – how women can succeed in the construction industry

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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