In 2020, just 14% of the construction industry workforce were women. And even then, there is a further disparity between women working in construction and women employed on site.
As Building.co.uk states,
“The data shows just how deep-rooted the issue is: the female share of the sector workforce has been stuck at around 14% for over 20 years. And the proportion working as site operatives is a vanishingly small 2%."
Initiatives to get women involved in the industry existed 20 years ago and were in some part responsible for the experience and training of our latest recruit, Jan Balbaligo.
A professional site coordinator with years of experience running sites, we’ve asked Jan to reflect on her experience in the industry, discuss her thoughts on why more women aren’t involved and suggest how we can work to change this.
“It’s not that women don’t want to do it, it’s more that it still isn’t given as a choice when making decisions at an early stage. Women need more information about how they can get involved in the industry as well as encouragement that there are roles and companies that are encouraging a more diverse workforce. There are so many roles that don’t require physical strength.”
At Facit Homes, we strongly believe that construction roles should be filled by more women, but the reality is that this is still seen as unusual and it is something that we are hopeful will continue to change.
In order to raise awareness, this the first in a two part series that focuses on the possibilities for women in construction.
Facit Homes’ first female Site Coordinator
Jan Balbaligo joined the team in December 2020 as Site Coordinator for our latest project in North London. Her combination of architectural expertise and sustainable, hands on building experience made her the perfect person to take on this unique role.
Jan coordinates operations with the delivery team in the studio and the construction professionals on site. She will work from the site office for the duration of the project to organise all activities and report back to the studio in real time.
Problem solving is a joint operation, with Jan either working to solve the problem with the site team or detailing larger issues for the studio team to respond to, using videos, images and digital drawings sent via Google Chat. This digital process ensures decisions can be made quickly and accurately without lengthy site visits that delay progress.
“My role allows operations to be more fluid and connected. As the point of contact for the studio, customer, sub-contractors and neighbours, it requires a lot of communication and organisation as well as a professional and positive attitude.”
Bruce Bell, CEO & Founder of Facit Homes, spoke about the technical skill set required for the role.
“The Site Coordinator must have technical and digital expertise that is not often associated with construction. Traditional site managers often fail to engage with the level of sophistication and technology required. Databases, digital time management, gantt charts and digital drawing management must be dealt with in a continuous real time process.”
Head of Operations, Ryan McLoughlin, works closely with each Site Coordinator to supervise the programme of works for each project. Jumping between multiple projects on a daily basis, Ryan has a constant overview of what is happening on all sites. He believes that the lack of female representation on site takes a toll - and not just on women missing out on opportunities to join the industry.
“A lack of diversity can lead to a culture of unhealthy macho one-upmanship with crude schoolyard banter. A more diverse team creates a need to negotiate around differing perspectives which fosters a more respectful and collaborative team culture. ”
Jan spoke positively about her experiences on site throughout her career but also noted that a gender balance does seem to foster a positive culture change.
“In my experience, having women on site changes the energy and morale. Men often talk more professionally in a mixed gender environment and I’ve found that they don’t swear as much or have as much attitude.”
Passionate about the myriad of opportunities for women on site, Jan believes that representation is key to combating the lack of awareness around interesting and accessible construction roles.
"I’ve never felt hindered by being a woman. It’s mostly felt like people are optimistic about giving you an opportunity."
How can the digitisation of construction help women entering the industry?
Traditional construction is more heavily reliant on manual labour than innovative house building techniques. Even so, a recent Facit Homes project only included two female trade professionals, a plasterer and a renderer, which took the total percentage of women to just 4% - 5 of the 120 individuals who worked on site.
Bruce hopes that the digitisation of construction will encourage women. Digital processes and technological advancements mean that roles have evolved and the majority of tasks can be undertaken by anyone with the experience and understanding (as opposed to physical strength).
“Moving away from the manual labour aspect of construction creates a more professional environment which we think is more encouraging for women entering the workforce. Digitisation in construction has reduced this requirement for manual labour and we believe that it is a great benefit of better technology.”
In encouraging more women into these roles, Jan also believes that public speaking is one way of reaching a wider audience. Inspired herself by architect, Lina Bo Bardi, who was often involved in overseeing the construction of her designs, as well as other positive female role models such as her previous employer, Sasha Bhavan, Jan believes that another way to make a difference is being on site every day.
“The challenge is for women to be more ‘present’ in this industry so that we also become part of the architectural tradition. Better representation of women on construction websites and social media as well as via lectures and teaching all works to help to shift the all-male mindset and to encourage young women to be part of the industry that physically builds our society.”
Journey to Facit Homes
As Jan notes in her TED Talk,
“Some people say to me, ‘Jan, how have you been able to do what you do, with no clear pathway to follow or no company to guide you?’ I did what I felt what I felt was right. I had an interest and I followed my heart.”
Supported by the engineering company CostainGroup which, in the early 2000’s, created initiatives to get more women into construction, Jan began to explore the possibilities at school. As a result, she believes that there should be more of these schemes supported by a range of engineering, architecture and construction firms on a national level.
“Women need more information about how they can get involved in the industry as well as encouragement that there are roles and companies that are encouraging a more diverse workforce.”
Initially interested in art, technology and culture, Jan chose to study Architecture at university, which involved working as an Architectural Assistant.
During her degree, she was often shocked at the wasteful nature of traditional building processes and unsustainable materials. Working within a community project that involved building furniture, Jan discovered a fascination for the practicalities of how things go together. Each summer, she took the opportunity to get involved in Bio Construction projects abroad which built structures from natural materials.
Intent on pursuing the sustainable angle of architecture and construction, Jan travelled abroad to find different ways of building - visiting Brazil, Portugal, Panama, Germany, USA, Guatemala and Philippines in her quest.
While she was living in Portugal, Jan volunteered for a festival and became part of teams which built stages and structures - “the perfect platforms to test interesting designs for open minded clients with budgets”. Once she had learnt to build from scratch, Jan was given opportunities to lead teams and designs.
Before Part 3 of her Architecture degree, she was invited to Panama to design, build and project manage the construction of eight houses and a temple for a festival.
Jan then worked as designer, builder and team leader for BambooDNA at intervals for five years, completing high performance structural installations in bamboo and fitting out the BambooDNA headquarters in California.
A total of 15 years of invaluable experience in innovative and sustainable construction - travelling, learning, training and building - led her back to the UK and to Facit Homes.
Q&A with Jan
What is your advice for those starting out?
“A curiosity for how things work is key. Ask as many questions as possible and actively seek local projects that you can get involved in. Community projects are both rewarding and can be a vital stepping stone into skills you never knew you needed, such as the logical process of building furniture.”
What do you love about construction?
“For me, the best part of this job is seeing the development and progress everyday, as well as working with a group of talented carpenters and build team. I love to get to the site first thing in the morning so I can walk around quietly and engage with the project for the day ahead.”
Does the team and site culture make a difference?
“Absolutely. The team here is so supportive and I’m so happy to be working with them. I was thrown into something new and I’m learning every day with their help. Everyone is so patient, kind, supportive and funny - often reminding me and reiterating anything for my benefit. In particular, Andy and Dan, our Lead Carpenter, have been really good at explaining details. I am constantly learning from them and the others.
Ryan is also a great support in the studio and during site visits. He is often checking on me and ensuring I know what is going on, stepping beyond the role of operations to make me feel supported.”
Should women join the industry?
“Yes! Absolutely. In construction, if you have the training, experience or qualification, you’ve proved your right to be there, regardless of your gender. Women are just as willing and capable to be part of the industry and should have the same diverse opportunities.
The digitisation of construction means that it is less manual than ever before and innovative use of technology has opened up roles that previously haven’t existed. Progress towards flexible working hours and working from home is encouraging and suggests that we can balance this out.”