Crossrail is not only on course to transform travel across London, it is also committed to widening the career choices of women and young people.
On January 19, Rail Minister Claire Perry heralded Europe’s largest construction project for its achievements in tackling the gender imbalance that persists among those choosing engineering and construction as a profession (RAIL 793).
Women currently make up a third of the Crossrail workforce, placing it well ahead of the construction industry’s disappointingly low average of 20%, and ahead of the 16% who work in rail. The project has also generated more than 500 apprenticeships since 2012, making it one of the largest single points of entry for young talent - sorely needed in rail and the wider UK construction industry as both sectors manage an ageing workforce.
Crossrail has raised the bar by smashing stereotypes and embracing the maxim that being a woman is no barrier to working on a building site, while also offering an exciting career for school leavers.
Eroding the well-established reputation of the building site as an exclusive realm of the alpha male has been the goal of Crossrail’s partnership with Women into Construction - a not-for-profit organisation that promotes greater gender equality in UK construction. It runs alongside the Young Crossrail programme, which has sent apprentices and female role models to inspire students at 277 schools, colleges and universities along the Crossrail route.
One such role model is 19-year-old Zoe Conroy, recruited last September as a Technical Engineer Apprentice by Crossrail contractor Laing O’Rourke.
Having finished her schooling in Portugal, where she moved aged eight to follow her father’s career as a civil engineer, Zoe wanted a more vocational path into higher education than a full-time university course could offer.
Based at Crossrail’s construction site at Tottenham Court Road, she is on site for four days a week, and attends London South Bank University on day release to study for an HNC (Higher National Certificate) in engineering. After two years she will embark on a Bachelor’s degree before commencing a chartership to become a fully-fledged Chartered Engineer.
Her day job involves assisting the Site Engineer to conduct surveys, prepare for concrete pours and complete the daily construction report, as Tottenham Court Road moves closer to accepting its first services in December 2018. Some £1 billion is being spent here to build a new station 25 metres below ground, a new street-level ticket hall and interchange facilities with the existing London Underground station.
“I always wanted to go into engineering, so working on Crossrail has been a real bonus,” she says.
“All my friends read about and see Crossrail on the news, which is cool, and I suppose it is something to tell the grandkids about in 50 years’ time that I helped build it.
“When I first told my mates I was working in construction they didn’t believe me, and I even had to show them my site badge. They all asked why I was doing it, until I told them how exciting and busy it all is.
“I’m definitely bringing my parents and mates down here when it’s all finished. I might never get to work on something this big again.”
Sadly, the initial response of her friends is not an unusual one - only a small number of her peers currently identify construction as a viable or interesting occupation. She adds that her own aspirations probably owe more to her home environment, rather than to any eager promotion by careers advisors at school.
“My dad is a self-employed civil engineer, and he started out as an apprentice too, 30 years ago with O’Rourke. One of my younger brothers wants to be an electrician and the other would like to be in construction as well. My dad is very proud to have another engineer in the family.
“I was the only one from my class at school to choose this. People my age are not encouraged to consider it really, so there should be more talks at schools.”
Inspiring the next cohort of young people - and in particular young women - is precisely what Crossrail’s employment and equality strategies have set out to do, according to the project’s Talent and Resource Director Valerie Todd. It is a two-pronged blueprint to tackle the apparent apathy of young people and the dearth of women entering the sector.
More than 13,000 students, teachers and parents have been engaged by the Young Crossrail programme, which uses ambassadors such as Conroy to host workplace visits or travel to educational establishments to provide an insight into her working life and the benefits of working in construction.
Meanwhile, the partnership with Women into Construction has created work experience and employment opportunities for women through its collaboration with the supply chain, helping to foster a culture more welcoming to female workers.
“We’re very pleased with what our values and culture stands for,” says Todd. “However, numbers of women in the supply chain are not what we would like, which is why we have a partnership with Women in Construction to give it a boost.
“The contracts we sign with suppliers require that they have an approach , but not a quota. It’s about creating the right conditions to attract women. We don’t want artificial numbers, we want to look at the culture, and this has borne fruit.”
Women into Construction has already scored high-profile success via its involvement in delivering the construction of the Olympic Park, for the London Games in 2012. Performing the role of broker, it helped contractors find a supply of trained and motivated women seeking a career in construction, while for candidates it provided free training and advice.
Kath Moore, the organisation’s director, feels that the Olympic Games ably demonstrated the need to reach out to women who (contrary to some popular misconceptions) find construction and engineering an appealing career choice.
Simple measures were taken to make construction a gender-neutral activity, such as introducing more flexible working, personal protective equipment in female clothing sizes, and better provision of segregated toilets and changing facilities. Although Moore says that real change is needed at a higher decision-making level, it is also recognised that the smaller things add up.
She adds that Women into Construction’s strategy is largely about shattering traditional and outdated attitudes that women are incapable of physically demanding ‘manual’ tasks or unsuited to long hours of labour.
“Having worked on the Olympics, they felt that they were leading the way in changing the culture to consider other groups, and be more welcoming. For instance, there’s still a tendency to work 12-hour days that is not conducive to anyone with young children, and we need to change this.
“There are a lot of women keen on construction who find it difficult to get in, but there is an unconscious bias of not wanting to take the chance because it is unfamiliar and some still ask ‘can women do it?’
“I felt the Olympics set a particular standard for diversity and employment rights such as the London Living Wage. We ran with it on Crossrail, and soon other projects will look to take up the mantle - including HS2, Crossrail 2 and the Northern Line extension.”
Measuring a social construct such as culture is not without its difficulties, and there will always be critics of schemes that could appear to prioritise gender over suitability or qualification to perform a role. But Todd and Moore are very clear that it should not be seen either as ‘positive discrimination’ at the expense of male candidates or as a forceful attempt to manipulate an industry that naturally appeals to greater numbers of men. Crossrail is rectifying a status quo that no longer reflects the potential pool of skilled labour.
“The problem (historically) has been bringing the two parties together of employers and prospective candidates,” says Todd. “We broker the relationship and have an arrangement to introduce talent to those looking to hire.
“We’ve done this by getting it on the agenda at board level, talking to contractors, and through our partnerships with Women into Construction and Job Centre Plus. The danger is when nobody wants to talk about it.
“If you go back through history, there have always been barriers to women when people said they were not intelligent enough to work or own property. Women have fought for their rights over generations, and are now a permanent feature in the workforce. Now it is our task to remove the final barriers to certain professions. Look at the legal profession, which was very male-dominated. Now it is about 50/50.
“In other parts of Europe the same barriers do not exist in construction, so it is not universal. This needs to happen, and we need to catch up.”
Zoe Conroy is one of many Crossrail success stories, and proof that given the opportunity women can flourish in traditionally male roles. While she and her female colleagues remain in a minority, she feels every bit as equal to the men on the worksite and says there is no sign of the misogynistic attitudes of the past.
In the spirit of collectiveness, she also modestly brushes away suggestions that her activities as an ambassador make her a role model, although she has recently recorded a motivational case study video for Crossrail’s YouTube channel.
“There are significantly more guys, but it’s never bothered me as I grew up with brothers,” she adds. “They all treat me the same, which is the only way I’d want it.
“There are even a couple of perks being here. I’m short, so they let me put the EDM on the crane to lower it into the tunnels, as the EDM’s legs are quite long and it’s hard carrying it up the ladder.
“The long hours are the only bad thing I can think of. We have to be on site from 0700 to 1800 when there is a concrete pour, but we are all in it together and it would only get to me if I didn’t like what I was doing so much.
“I think everyone on site’s seen the YouTube video now and had a good laugh. But you can’t take it too seriously, and you’ve got to have a sense of humour. It probably means I’m accepted.
“I don’t feel like a role model, just like all the other girls at University doing the same thing. But if I do encourage any more girls to follow me then I’m only too happy to.”
Looking beyond the end of the project in 2019, Crossrail is keen to secure the legacy of its recruitment strategies, alongside other areas of best practice it has developed in procurement, engineering, operations and environmental sustainability. Peak construction has already been passed, and recruitment levels will now begin to tail off as the most labour-intensive construction phases are over. The Crossrail Learning Legacy website was therefore launched in February, to share knowledge and recommendations to others via case studies and technical papers.
The transport infrastructure skills strategy published on January 28 contains clear apprenticeship targets and workforce diversity objectives, ensuring that the achievements of Crossrail are built upon and expanded when other flagship schemes (for example, HS2) are given the go-ahead in next few years.
Gender balances, of course, do not exclusively dictate the level of diversity in the workforce, and Todd says that future efforts to achieve greater equality should pay more focus to other under-represented sections of society.
She explains: “The areas we currently have the most evidence for is age and gender, but we don’t have much for sexual orientation, religious beliefs or socio-economic status. It would be good if future projects gathered more information in these areas. We’ve done what we can within the limits, but would have liked to do a lot more.
“We have a good record, and learned lessons for the rest of the industry to take away. We have changed things for good in terms of leadership across the industry, which I don’t think will unravel when Crossrail is over.”
And as for Zoe Conroy’s future, Laing O’Rourke will move her on to another project by September, once the civil engineering has finished at Tottenham Court Road and the fitting out begins. She doesn’t know where she will end up but that, she says, is half the excitement.
- This feature was published in RAIL 796 on March 16 2016.