September is an important month for me. It is the month in which I was born, the month in which I married and this year September is the month in which I begin my 50th year in Construction.
In some ways it is easy and glib to say I don’t know where the years have gone but on reflection there have been so many changes.
I recently gave a presentation to a group of Year 8 pupils at one of the Secondary Schools in Leeds. It was part of the International Women’s Day celebrations and my employers had agreed to provide some insight into the world of construction and the role women could play.
When I was first asked to do this I remember feeling a bit daunted. I felt that those young ladies could ask “What’s she doing here, she’s old enough to be my grandmother?” and they would have been right.
In the end that was actually the line I took in engaging with them and focused on both the changes in society as well as the changes in construction over the period. The presentation went very well, there was good feedback and some really interesting questions raised at the end. One girl asked a really poignant question which took me back to myself at her age, but I will talk about this a little further into this story.
A couple of years ago I attended a conference (for women) and during one of the question and answer sessions following one of the presentations, a particularly assertive young woman had a real dig at the “older” women in the room. The discussions had been centred around equal pay and this delegate’s issue was that the reason her generation were having problems in these and other areas was the fault of earlier generations who had not bothered to fight for equal pay.
My first reaction was to feel a bit ashamed and to ask myself why I hadn’t been more bothered about ensuring I was being paid the same as the male quantity surveyors I worked with. I felt a bit indignant about what she had said and knew instinctively that she was wrong, but it wasn’t until I began looking back at my career in preparation for the International Women’s Day talk that I knew why I felt that way.
My presentation to the girls started by looking at my role as a grandmother and then as a mother but it wasn’t until I started looking at my role as a wife (which coincided with the start of my working life) that it began to become clear in my mind.
I married in 1972 when I was three days past my 21st Birthday. I shared with the girls that my wedding dress had cost just over £23, my bouquet of pink roses and orchids cost £2 and our honeymoon in Padstow, Cornwall (long before Rick Stein took over) cost just over £14 for 7 nights B&B in a room with a sea view, for the two of us.
We bought a new-build 3 bed semi for £5,000, having paid an extra for central heating because central heating wasn’t the norm in new houses at that time. Thinking about house buying and mortgages started me thinking about those times, although I didn’t share all of these thoughts with the girls.
When my husband-to-be and I went to the solicitors to start the conveyancing process, I remember the solicitor nearly fell off his chair when we said we wanted the house to be in joint names. In 1972 that just didn’t happen. It was also the case that had I wanted to buy a house in my own right I couldn’t have done so without finding a man to guarantee the loan.
Similarly, at about that time a woman couldn’t get a credit card or even open a bank account without a similar guarantee by a man.
Within a couple of years of moving into our house, when we were struggling to get by, the interest rate for mortgages rose to 18% – seems unbelievable in these low interest times.
At that time women were not able to go into the public bar of a pub and buy a drink in their own right and any woman who went into a Wimpy Bar on her own after midnight was refused to be served on the basis that any woman out on her own at that time must be a prostitute.
So there I was starting out in construction all those years ago, the only girl in my class, the first and only girl at that time to undertake a full time degree course in construction and the only girl in the Building and Engineering Department.
I have to say that at that time, fighting for equal pay just wasn’t on the agenda. I was fighting for the right to be in the construction industry at all.
A couple of years earlier I had applied for a job with a local housebuilding firm as a trainee draftsman only to be told that it wasn’t suitable for a young lady but if I wanted to I could apply for a typists job if something came up in the near future. I still have the rejection letter.
I was also being told that it wasn’t fair that I was doing a man’s job and depriving a man, who might have a family to support, from earning a living.
Women, it seems, have always had to fight for what they wanted, be it the right to have their own money and property, the right to vote, the right to do a “man’s job”. So forgive me if I wasn’t fighting for equal pay all those years ago I was fighting for the right, in the first place, to do the job that would eventually lead to a fight for equal pay.
This brings me back to the question the young lady at the school on International Women’s Day asked. Her question was “Did your parents support you?” I know instantly that her parents didn’t support her. My answer was “no, not really”. Of course they supported me in the way one would expect parents to support their child – feeding, clothing etc. (although I know this does not always happen), but they couldn’t understand why a “nice girl” would want to work in such an industry. I stood my ground and here I am, but it did surprise me that 50 years later this attitude remains.
My main point in writing this piece is to provide some encouragement to any young women who are thinking about a career in construction and who, perhaps, do not get all the encouragement they would like from their family or friends that it is a viable option and one that I have enjoyed for almost 50 years.