Katy Dowding is Executive Vice President, Skanska UK.
A member of the UK Executive team, Katy has responsibility for Skanska’s Building and Building Services operations, covering construction, maintenance, MEP and fit-out. Prior to this, Katy was managing director of Skanska’s 800-strong facilities management arm for five years, sitting on the UK’s senior management team, having joined Skanska in 2003. She was previously with Tarmac/Carillion for 15 years.
A strong advocate for women in construction, Katy was elected chair of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) for eight years. She was Women in the City’s Woman of Achievement in 2013 and named Leader of the Year by the British Institute of Facilities Management (BIFM) in 2016. She is a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.
Nobody told me I couldn’t
For my whole life, I can’t ever recall being told I couldn’t do something. Or maybe I just didn’t hear them. However, I realise that’s not everyone’s experience, so I don’t presume to represent half the population. Indeed, I view myself as very fortunate and I believe this experience has influenced my career journey.
Every woman – every person – is more than the person they are at work. As well as being an executive vice president, I’m a wife and a step mum, a triathlete and a feminist – one who is proactive about equal rights for everyone, across the world.
A child of the 1970s, my early ambitions generally revolved around horses – riding them, being with them, working with them. I learned a lot about responsibility through my interests, specifically caring for others who are reliant on me, every day of the year. There were no boys in the stable yard – just girls, getting on with all the jobs that needed to be done. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I learned that I could do any of the things put in front of me, and so could the girls around me.
This was reinforced by my two elder brothers who simply treated me like another brother with longer hair, and our parents, who treated us equally. I didn’t come across a male-dominated environment until I entered the world of work. I experienced equality from an early age and I believe that’s the kind of environment we need to create for women to succeed.
When I started work as a trainee Quantity Surveyor in the 1980s, around me were authoritative female role models, from Margaret Thatcher to the Spice Girls in the 1990s. On site, however, there were still nude calendars in the canteen and social events at lap-dancing clubs. The extent of male domination was underlined by the fact that there was no ladies toilet on the first site where I worked, so I spent the first 18 months of my career going to the local petrol station down the road!
I got my first job through persistence but, again, it didn’t cross my mind that I would fail or be affected by being female. I wrote to ten companies asking for a job and for them to pay for my college course – and pestered the one that responded until I got what I wanted!
Five women and 60 men started the course. At the end, it was me and seven men who withstood the stamina test of studying for five years to get a degree, plus two more to get a RICS qualification.
Only 12 per cent of those in construction were female at that point. I worked on small projects where everyone had to understand everyone’s job and cover for each other which made for a great learning environment where there was more rivalry between engineers and surveyors than between men and women. I also had great bosses, mentors and sponsors during my early years, who were good advocates for me. We should reflect on that – it’s just as important to promote others as ourselves.
“I also had great bosses, mentors and sponsors during my early years, who were good advocates for me. We should reflect on that – it’s just as important to promote others as ourselves.”
After reaching the role of commercial director, I moved into an operational role to gain experience before joining Skanska back in a commercial role, attracted by its values-based approach and opportunities in operational roles. I then completed a masters degree. By this time ethics in business had become far more prominent, but still only 15% of the construction industry was female.
In 2006 I was appointed chair of Women in Construction. It was there that I learned never to judge others by your own experience. It was an opportunity to talk to lots of different women and learn about their experiences, some of which were really difficult.
In 2012, I achieved my dream of running a business when I became a managing director and in 2017 I was appointed executive vice president, my current role.
The relationship between diversity and inclusion and social responsibility has become more and more important throughout this entire time. It’s become evident that it’s not just important for women trying to make it in construction, but for the industry itself. This was highlighted when I visited the Chelsea Flower Show one year and found the mirrors in the toilet set too high, so no-one below six foot could use them properly. It struck me that the man who had likely hung these mirrors did not represent the end users – and it made me think, how can we create buildings that serve everyone effectively if only 50% of the population are represented in its development?
Diversity, with inclusion, is a powerful thing. It brings mixed thinking and different perspectives and this is more important than ever as we enter an age of modernisation and digitalisation and face a skills shortage that will only be magnified by the effects of Brexit.
Today, women make up 20% of the construction industry – which is an 8% rise over the last 30 years, and at this rate it will take 112 years to get to parity. We are moving in the right direction, but we need to move much, much faster. We need to make our industry more attractive to women, but we also need to inspire the next generation – by ensuring that primary school children understand that STEM subjects are an option they can explore.
We need to build inclusive working environments that people of all backgrounds are attracted to join and want to stay in, and be strong, positive role models. So my message to anyone in the industry wondering what they can do to help achieve this is: don’t be shy. Think about how others see you and how you can leave your legacy.
Feminism isn’t just for women and it’s not just senior figures who can make a difference – what can you do to help lead change?
Linked In: Katrina Dowding