What it’s like to be an “old woman” in construction – By Kathryn Ladley

I recently re-read the “What it’s like to be a woman in construction” blog on the Just Practicing web site. I remember reading it the first time and identifying with the comments/experiences of Su Butcher, and then some!! I also reread the article by Sharon Slinger on this site entitled “When does “very experienced” become “too experienced”? and having spoken to Sharon a few weeks before her article was published, I could recognise some of the sentiments expressed.

I entered the Construction Industry in 1970 when I began my BSc Quantity Surveying degree course at what was Leeds Polytechnic, now Leeds Beckett University. I had gone to Leeds Poly from an all-girls convent school into an environment where I was the only girl in a class of 25. Call me naïve if you like, but I had no notion that I would find myself in this situation and believe me when I say that, at that time, I was painfully shy. As I said, I had experienced most of the things Su had described but remember, this was some 20 years earlier when a woman being involved in anything construction related was even rarer.

Over the years things have changed and I am no longer painfully shy. Some would say I am adept at “calling a spade a shovel”, not “ backwards at coming forwards” and not “suffering fools gladly”. These are all “talents” which I have acquired as a result of trying to survive within this male dominated industry and I have to say, in some ways, I am not really proud of my “progress” in these areas. Unlike Sue, I was pursued by my male manager.

It is still difficult, even today, with all the publicity and support that women in these circumstances are receiving, to stand up against these occurrences but back in the 70’s there really was an element of “it’s just the way things are” and circumstances meant that I couldn’t “rock the boat”. I am delighted by the way today’s young women are taking up the challenge. No doubt some of these young women will say “…so why didn’t you fight for your rights?” I am almost ashamed to say that in a way they are right. But the world in 1970 was very different to how it is now. Su hinted at this in her comments about “it’s just Jimmy being Jimmy” – a case of “boys will be boys” attitude, however, you have to remember that this was a time when women were expected to be stay at home wives and mothers and weren’t even allowed to take out a mortgage for a house without having a man there to sign the forms for her.

Back in the early 70’s my fights were about daring to think I could do a “man’s job”, daring to want to work at a job which I loved (and still love) rather than becoming a full time housewife as soon as I married, daring to work hard and qualify before many of the men I worked with and daring to be as able, if not more able, to do my job than many men I met. Different times, different issues – still a fight.

Over recent months there has been much interest, in the media, about a lady called Ada Lovelace. Ada was born in 1815 and sadly only lived until she was 36 years old. She was the daughter of one of England’s greatest poets, Lord Byron, but perhaps perversely, had a great interest in mathematics. More recently she has been attributed with being the world’s first computer programmer who improved upon the designs of Charles Babbage. Her work is considered to be the first written computer algorithm in that it contains written instructions for a machine to follow. In her day much concern was expressed regarding her interest and work in the world of mathematics. In particular concern was voiced as to her wellbeing by Augustus De Morgan:-

“the very great tension of mind which they (maths problems) require is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.”

In my case, I too experienced the concern of “well-meaning” men:- The ones who were concerned for my safety,

“You can’t do this job, you won’t be able to cope with the mud and other site conditions”

– well guess what, I did – I’m still here. The ones who were concerned for public finances,

“There’s no point in training a woman because in a few years she will get married, have children and never return”

– once again, I did all that and I’m still here. The ones who were concerned for my husband,

“doesn’t he mind having a wife who earns more than him and doesn’t it lead to many arguments”

– he’s was so concerned, he laughed all the way to the bank. Over the years other issues have arisen, all connected with being a woman in construction. Some have been dealt with, others persist.

What I didn’t expect (and again it would seem I am still as naïve as I was in the 70s) was to reach this stage in my life and find that I am facing a different kind of discrimination – that of ageism. Before anyone jumps down my throat and tells me that this is not exclusive to women, I fully recognise this but what has made me stop and think is the fact that, just as the 1970s was the start of more women becoming involved in construction, where we are now is the start of women reaching a period in their lives when society thinks they should be retiring.

We are at a point in time where people have a longer life expectancy and where the government is telling us we should be prepared to work for longer than we would have expected when we first began our working life. In 1970 my retirement age was due to be 60. Being a woman it was 5 years shorter than a man’s expected 65. I don’t want to get into the pro’s and con’s of this other than to say that, personally, I have no problems with the changes undertaken to bring about this equality in retirement ages, although it does seem that more thought could have been given to the impact this would have on women’s pensions. At that time I don’t suppose that I gave much thought to something that was so far away other than thinking (based on the health and fitness of my grandparents) that 60/65 was probably very fair.

So here I am now, aged 67, still working and definitely not wanting to retire, however, I am so underwhelmed by the lack of opportunities I see in the press and on-line. My perception (and I readily accept that my perception might be wrong) is that there is a subtle reluctance to consider people of my age (male or female) when looking at employment, training, new ventures. I readily admit that I (and others of my generation) might not be quite as physically agile as we were at 25, but our knowledge and understanding of the industry has grown over the years, and our ability to process and disseminate information remains extensive.

Maybe recruiters need to reconsider the characteristics they are looking for. In these days of agile working is it really necessary to be “energetic” or “dynamic”. Couldn’t those qualities be replaced by “experienced”, “knowledgeable”, “enthusiastic”, “loyal” or “dedicated”. As I said earlier, I love working, I like being able to use my knowledge and experience, I like feeling fulfilled in my working life.

I consider myself very lucky to have an employer who recognises that my gender and my age do not detract from my ability to fulfil the requirements of my job. My personal life is fulling too. I am a wife, a mother and a grandmother but I am not ready for that aspect to be the “be all and end all” of my life. I am sure that I am not alone in these thoughts.

Kathryn Ladley BSc, FRICS, MAPM.

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