One size doesn’t fit all!

As part of the EG Future Female Leader’s programme, Senior Bid Manager Sarah Bissessar shares her thoughts on increasing gender diversity in senior roles construction.

One of my overriding memories when joining the construction industry just over 20 years ago was PPE, or lack of it for women. Supervising an all-male team of bricklayers, to cope with the cold winter days on site, I requested a high-vis jacket. What came back was a men’s ‘small’ jacket, this item could have fitted me twice and could not make me feel more like I was in a man’s world.

Fast forward to 2021 and the industry still has a problem with attracting women into the sector. Go Construct suggest that around 14% of the industry is represented by women, although encouragingly this is on the increase, with 37% of new entrants into the industry that came from higher education being women, perhaps inspired by the opportunity for a great career, perhaps encouraged by the improvement in women’s PPE, and like PPE, the need to look at individual requirements instead of a one size fits all approach.

80% terrified, 20% excited

Improving gender diversity in senior roles across our industry is a passion of mine and one that I recently spoke about as part of the EG Future Female Leader’s programme. As part of my development at Willmott Dixon Interiors, I have been on a journey with eight other female construction and property professionals, gaining the skills and confidence to progress to leadership positions. The course completed with each trainee giving a ten minute ‘TED Talks’ style presentation – with no notes and no pulpit to hide behind, in front of an auditorium full of their peers and leaders from across the sector.

When we commenced the programme in February 2020, I remember feeling 80% terrified and 20% excited at what I had agreed to do, and hoping this would switch around by the time I stepped onto stage for the finale!

The covid pandemic stretched the programme from a swift 4 months to a more drawn out 18 months with a busy final month of training recap and prep in September. On 6 October 2021, I stepped out on stage still feeling what I can only describe as a fairly equal mix of terror and excitement.

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I talked my audience through my experience as a female in the construction industry. Leading with the PPE debacle I faced at the beginning of my career, I moved on to talk about the challenge of retaining females in the industry to create better balance at leadership level, workplace agility, and the need for more flexibility to make construction a more attractive choice for women to stay in.

12 years into my career I had my first child, and unlike what we have seen during the pandemic, flexible working was not the norm. To juggle childcare with work commitments, I asked to reduce to a four-day week, my request was met with confusion and I was asked if I wouldn’t mind continuously switching my non-working day. This request felt so out of touch, managing childcare around a constantly revolving timetable of work is nigh on impossible.

Given the inflexibility of the construction workplace, I made the decision to become self-employed, becoming a freelance estimator, which I continued for five years. While I made the best of the situation, it did feel unfair to have to choose between the job security of full employment with risking the insecurities of self-employment to balance family commitments.

What are the next steps for agile working?

I worked with Willmott Dixon Interiors on a part time freelance basis for 18 months before becoming a permanent employee in 2018. I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to continue my reduced hours to balance parental responsibilities, and given the company’s ambitious target for gender parity, there are many policies in place to support flexible working.

Fast forward to Autumn 2021 and the impact of Covid-19 has turned the way we work upside down. In March 2020, almost overnight nearly every office in the UK was closed, with Britons being put under a ‘work from home if you can’ order, this led to the largest agile working pilot we will ever see. There have been some great advances over this period, even the most technophobic person has needed to get used to video conferencing and those who are most committed to the office had to change their habits.

While some great things have been learned through the necessity of flexible working Covid-19 has thrust upon us, as the freedom to return to offices commences, it is important that we make sure we maintain an inclusive environment. We must maintain a flexible approach that is not only inclusive for a mix of home and remote working but continues to allow part time, flexible and agile working. Above all, we need to avoid presenteeism where being physically ‘in’ the office means greater access to career opportunities.

The focus needs to be on creating a positive working environment for all of our employees. If we want to see greater representation of females within senior positions in construction, then an individual rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach to flexible working is a must.

Learnings from the EG Future Female Leader’s programme


As I reflect on the EG Future Female Leader’s programme, I am so proud of what the cohort and I (pictured above) have achieved, and am grateful for the friendships that have been formed along the way.

The programme bought together a diverse group of women and provided us with a practical suite of skills to lead within our businesses. Speaking for ten minutes, in front of a full house without any notes or visual aids took each of us out of our comfort zone, however with the support of the excellent trainers from Ginger Leadership Communications and each other, we have been able to successfully rise to the challenge, gaining skills that will transfer into our daily roles and hopefully inspire and challenge many people through the talks we delivered on the night.

Click here to listen to the talks from the night