Winners and finalists at the Women’s Empowerment Awards 2016.
Elise John-Lewis
31 March 2016 By: Elise John-Lewis
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Supporting women’s empowerment

Corporate Responsibility Manager, Elise John-Lewis reflects on equality and empowerment.

When a client asked us to sponsor their second annual Women’s Empowerment Awards, we were only too happy to be involved.

We have strong ties with the people, communities and borough of Barking and Dagenham, as well as enjoying a good relationship with the council, having delivered some of the borough’s recent high profile developments, including Abbey Road, part of the Ice House Quarter, and London Road. We are also now working on the first part of the major regeneration programme, which some of you may know as the Gascoigne Estate and was recently announced under the new name of Weavers Quarter.

You might be wondering what exactly a construction company, or indeed our industry, has to do with women’s empowerment. There are parallels and lessons that apply to both sides.

First and foremost I want to talk about empowerment and what it really means. Which was, after all, the theme of the event. Empowerment is linked to equality. You don’t achieve one without the other. And people need to be empowered. So they can take steps towards achieving equality.

Separating the two for just a minute…There is a lot of talk in politics; in industry; in communities; at work and often even in our own homes about the need for equality in different areas of life. When it comes to talking about equality for women, or gender parity – which was the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day that took place earlier this month – it is a big, important principle.

The Women’s Equality Party, a political party, was launched last year. A report from the Women and Equalities Committee, issued in the last few weeks, showed the pay gap between men and women still stands at just under 20%. (And it’s barely changed in the last four years.) Just last week, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission was in the news for saying that there is still an old boys’ network that is preventing women from getting more of the top jobs in our FTSE 100 and top 250 companies here in the UK.

I said that empowerment and equality are linked. But having one doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the other. Or that it works without the other. I’ll explain what I mean. And I can use our own industry and Bouygues UK as examples. Recent figures have shown that within the construction industry the number of female employees stands at somewhere just shy of 280,000. That equates to around about 20% of the overall workforce. The numbers are up compared to the year before. But it’s not just about numbers. Even if we were to accept that it’s not an industry where you are likely to achieve a 50/50 split between male and female colleagues, the numbers still don’t give a full and accurate picture.

I can tell you that at Bouygues UK, we have higher than the industry average when it comes to the number of female colleagues within the business. We’re particularly good at recruiting female graduates, for example. And the part of our business that will be delivering the new Weavers Quarter regeneration project has an impressive 23% of women working in technical or operational roles.

However, these numbers are not reflected all the way up the chain. (Although I should point out that we do now have a female chairwoman, Fabienne Viala.) The numbers are not the same when we split them across the whole of our business, or the UK, or at different grades, or even across the whole industry. Especially when you compare what are traditionally seen as male i.e. on site or engineer roles versus clerical roles. Or even corporate responsibility.

This is something that we as an industry and as a business know we need to work on. In fact we, like many of our clients, have a female employee network which has been set up to look at how we can do more and be better when it comes to hiring, retaining and progressing the careers of our female colleagues within the business.

Part of this, of course, comes down to having strong female role models. People that you can look up to. Inspirational people. People you can aspire to be like, or to emulate what they have achieved. And it’s just as important to know how they got there. It may not have been easy, but that is all part of the journey. And hearing about people who have been through that journey and been successful – that in itself can be empowering.

Within Bouygues UK, we are lucky to have several strong female role models. In fact, Our Legal Director recently spoke about her experiences in what is a traditionally male-dominated industry. I know from feedback that our female colleagues found it inspiring and motivating, and reassuring, to hear her – someone who is part of our highest leadership and management team, speak of her personal experiences and how she has dealt with them. And more, how she, as sponsor of our women’s network, is working to improve things and empower our female colleagues.

Again, it comes back to that word: empowerment.

The Women’s Empowerment Awards are a wonderful way to recognise all of the people, and they are usually women, who are working to empower women and communities in Barking and Dagenham. People who understand that to achieve true equality you have to accept that men and women, whether at work or in their personal lives, have different experiences, barriers and challenges – and need different ways to overcome these barriers. To achieve equality: through empowerment. Through recognising our differences.  And the different methods of support, formal and informal, that we all need, to achieve true equality and have better lives.

On behalf of Bouygues UK, I would like to say a massive congratulations to everyone that was there yesterday; whether as a finalist, winner or a supporter. Throughout the course of the evening we heard about some truly inspirational people.

And I, for one, was proud to be there, in their company.

Image courtesy of Anna Lukala Photography