The Table – By Joanna Farnsworth

At a North London primary school in the 1980’s we enjoyed learning and playing carefree no matter what was happening in the outside world.  These were the days of civil unrest, riots and high rates of unemployment, but, in the four walls of the classroom we thrived within a safe and supported space. I look back to those days filled with joy, a desire to learn and work together on exciting projects that took our imaginations to outer space and beyond. 

We attended Harvest festival, were cast in the nativity, recited the lords prayer and learned respect and compassion for one another. This was a Church Of England school in assembly we sang with joy the verses of hymns: 

‘No matter what the creed or the colour or the name won’t matter I’ll be there’

The denomination of the school was irrelevant, these were words of kindness taught to us at a young age and words to live by.

And so it went to follow that the creed, colour, gender or names of those sat around the classroom table with me didn’t matter; we were just children playing and learning together. The fact was if we had of been asked to disclose our gender and ethnicity of the eight of us all British, exactly half were girls, amongst us were three Afro Caribbean, one Greek-Cypriot and one Indian and we had been all placed on the table together having similar academic ability. 

There were occasional scuffles in the playground of course and if I did get into trouble it was usually for talking – communication has always been one of my strengths, not that the teachers saw its that way – but generally we worked together and learned.  

It has been a lot of years since I thought back to those days until recently; for many years we have been pushing the agenda on diversity and inclusion, #balance for better, yet we remain so under-represented on site and in the professions of the communities we work within?

  There are so many questions:

– What happened in the thirty years between then and now?

– When did we last feel truly represented and comfortable as equals sat side by side?

– Why have we regressed rather than progressed?

– How have we allowed this to happen? 

An unkindness has crept in, we are strangers at the table, our innocence has been eroded by an acceptance and ignorance that has to be called out and shown for its deception. The table is not level, its unevenness tips us down a path of unnecessary challenge and limited opportunity. 

Yet we are half blinded, we let ourselves believe that we are striving for a diverse future and balanced table but how often do we actually sit at such a table and asked ourselves why it’s not?

We have allowed this to happen, some of us that make up the minorities have kept our heads held low in gratitude to being included and accepted within the landscape of our industry, while the rest of us simply don’t care enough to incite change as long as it ceases to affect us.

What if we refused to accept this? What if we moved into an industry where we were just part of the  community, valued for our contribution and not our difference. Then we wouldn’t be different, we wouldn’t be special, then how would we feel? 

I can only speak for myself, from my experience and invite others to step forwards and tell their stories, but, to be honest then maybe if Industry hadn’t presented itself as a frontier, then maybe I wouldn’t have come as a prospector to see what opportunity I could find, to establish my worth and leave my mark on the built environment.

As a woman in construction, over the years I have been at times a rare breed, a times prized, appearing to be a ‘trophy Surveyor’, a box ticked, at times revered, at others rejected and repressed, but it has only been after so very many years that I have come to value my own worth. 

 That for me is a sad fact, that it has taken all this time to realise that I have the skills and knowledge that make me worth more than just being female. Because, for me, once I stood out because of my difference and it opened doors for the curious, the box tickers, the pioneers long before McKinsey, who wanted me as part of the team only all too often to be replaced by others that were mistrustful and simply didn’t want me in their team, on site or even in industry. In days gone by a woman in construction could be construed as a challenge in itself, a woman with an opinion in construction is an out and out threat.  

It’s been a career long battle of inclusion and exclusion and struggles with myself to accept that I am good enough. Maybe if I rewound the clock back ten years or twenty years and if I didn’t feel different or special, if it wasn’t a frontier how would I feel? Impartial? Indifferent? Or maybe just maybe I might have felt worthy, real belonging.. maybe, just maybe, I may have felt at ease as I did back at the table in 1980’s?   

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