Can you really have it all?

Is it possible to combine the rigours of a job in construction with the demands of being a mother? Chrissi McCarthy spoke to women about their experience and puts the case for better maternity benefits and flexible working. Photographs by Sam Fairbrother

Pregnancy and all that follows is an area often avoided in the male dominated construction industry. Whereas other industries have forged ahead in providing generous maternity packages, offering the legal minimum is still the norm in the sector, even for the biggest companies.

Meanwhile, the representation of women in the industry remains woeful. Women make up about 13% of the overall workforce, which includes admin staff. Breaking these numbers down to the professions, there’s five times more male RIBA members than women; while at the CIOB, the ratio is much worse — 20 to one.

If we are really going to bring about a more equal balance of the sexes then construction companies will need to tackle attitudes to maternity and flexible working. Money is not everything. Among the women contacted for this article, whether they had had a positive experience of combining motherhood and work was more a function of the attitude their companies had towards their maternity leave, than how much they paid them. And here again, it would seem a lot of women don’t seem to be faring much better either. Anxiety over losing their jobs, of being shunted down a cul-de-sac, or generally given no chance to work in a more flexible way, were common complaints of the dozens of people surveyed for this article.

This really can’t be good for the sector. Surely it’s not unreasonable to think that businesses that can afford to should be taking more action than the minimum legal requirements, such as statutory maternity pay (SMP)? There’s an excellent business case to do so.

The average length of time an employee stays with an employer is around two to three years; the average length of time women supported through pregnancy stay with a company is six to seven years per child. Recruitment experts estimate it costs £20,000 to replace an employee. On that reckoning you would be better off supporting a woman on £30,000 a year through her pregnancy, even if she took a fully paid year of maternity leave.

This logic doesn’t stop at women. Until recently men did not have the option to take time off for maternity, now they do and with women increasingly becoming the main breadwinners in the household it won’t be long before men start to see this as an essential requirement when looking for a job.

In an industry facing skills shortages, retaining key talent is an important issue. While in the boom times there may have been the option to increase wages to tempt people through the door or to stay put. But that is not the only way to win staff loyalty. I have worked for a number of companies who have cottoned on to this — offering additional benefits to staff such as pensions, cars, days off on birthdays and even free fruit — and seen the rewards in terms of low staff turnover. Maternity and paternity cover and flexible working should also be seen as key levers in retaining staff.

Another key point is that parents become responsible not just for themselves and this means they often work harder to provide for their families, a positive for your business. The majority of mothers will tell you they are worried they are being judged because they are mums and therefore work harder when they are at work to make up for it, increasing productivity and profits.

Parents with childcare responsibilities also have additional skills which come from the fact that they need to organise work, home and child care. This has been shown to increase multi-tasking, organisational and negotiating skills.

Of course, flexible working and 40-hour weeks are impossible on site if you have children... or are they? I once had a agency site manager in charge of a £5m site who, in the boom when we were short staffed insisted that he himself would only work a 40-hour week in order to create his own work life balance. The project hit its required targets despite some initial grumbles, the general consensus seemed to be: “I wish I could work a 40 hour week, but of course I wouldn’t ask for it.”

As the world changes and we look to overcome these issues we need to start understanding the needs of the next generation. Younger families are putting an increasing emphasis on sharing the family burden with both parents wanting to be involved equally in family life and this is something that is only likely to increase as gender roles change. The dominance of manual labour jobs and low wages for women is becoming consigned to the history books and reasons for sharing responsibility, such as women’s increasing status as breadwinners, society accepting men as prime carers, and laws encouraging this, are becoming the norm.

Those companies that understand that these changes are happening and encourage support for families will have the edge when it comes to recruitment. The long and short of it is quite simple: we need to find ways to make our industry and organisations attractive to tomorrow’s parents to fulfil our potential.

Chrissi McCarthy is a CIOB Ambassador and runs Constructing Equality which specialises in construction-specific equality and diversity training. Visit for more information

Michelle’s story: “Going back really isn’t that bad”

Michelle Levi, 32, (pictured above with husband Dan and two -year-old daughter Kitty) returned to work at Laing O’Rourke, after taking a year’s maternity leave for which she received SMP. She is now sustainability manager (construction north), and lives near Leeds.

Michelle returned to work a year ago, stepping down from her role as communications manager for the Yorkshire region to a become a project tenant liaison officer. “I wanted an easier job closer to home that didn’t involve a lot of out-of-hours working and where I could work four days,” she says.

Like most new mothers she was nervous about returning, some of her confidence had gone and she worried she would miss Kitty, but she quickly got back into the swing of things and has subsequently landed a promotion driving corporate social responsibility for a region covering Birmingham to Scotland. She is still able to work four days, and though the role involves more travelling, Laing O’Rourke allows her to work flexibly to suit child care arrangements. She says if she were to have another child she would probably use the paternity element (see overleaf), as she is the main breadwinner. “With my first child I needed nine months for my body and hormones to recover.”

Despite receiving minimum benefits Michelle says her experience with Laing O’Rourke has been positive, which has helped build her confidence and renew her ambitions for career progression. “I’m even more ambitious now,” she says.

She has the following advice for others: “I used my holiday and came back three days a week for the first six weeks, which worked well and allowed me to get my confidence back. Going back really won’t be as bad as you think. I had two keep in touch days, but in hindsight I probably would have had more. I would also advise women returning to work to manage their colleagues’ expectations and explain you can’t stay longer on certain days, but you can on others.”

Michelle has set up a forum on LinkedIn based on the interview with Chrissi McCarthy for this article, click here.

Deborah’s story: “Part-time is not an option”

Deborah (not her real name) works as a full-time business improvement and knowledge manager for a large contractor. She is currently on maternity leave looking after her baby boy. She hoped to return part-time initially, but has been told this is no longer an option.

Deborah is anxious about returning to work. Like most large contractors her organisation is going through changes and she is worried that she will not be able to get the job back. She was initially told she could return part-time under a scheme called “easy start”, but then received a letter from HR telling her that it was too much hassle to change her contract so this is no longer an option.

She feels pressurised to return to work early and this has caused some stress and she is now thinking about leaving and setting up her own organisation to help women in a similar position. There seemed to be more support before the birth, she says. And she has had to chase her boss to arrange keep in touch days, but has been working an hour or two a day answering emails. She is receiving SMP.

Now 47, this is Deborah’s second child, her eldest is 16. At that time she was working in a minimum wage job and had to return to work after a couple of weeks. During this latest pregnancy she says her boss carried out a risk assessment.

Deborah says she would still like her career to progress, but feels it will be hard.

Helen’s story: “I am not the norm in terms of flexible working”

Helen Nemeth is senior quantity surveyor with Pochin Construction. She is currently on maternity leave looking after her 11-week-old daughter Sophie and son James, 3, and will return in February to her full-time, site-based post. Helen (pictured above with James and Sophie) is receiving SMP during her six months away from work. She lives in Nantwich, Cheshire.

Helen Nemeth’s experience of maternity this time round couldn’t be more different than her first time in 2008. She became a managing QS at the age of 30 with a staff of 10, and was looking forward to a bright career. But the day she returned to her job after seven months off, she was put straight into consultation and subsequently made redundant.

Despite this setback she immediately got a job with Pochin Construction. At the interview she stipulated that she would need to have flexible working, and often works in the evening at home when the children are in bed, but that she wouldn’t be able to get to site until 9am and would need to leave by 5pm to pick up her son from nursery.. “My husband also works in construction and we couldn’t both be there from 7am to 7pm, which can often be the case,” she says.

Helen says her current boss has been very supportive, and also has flexible hours. Indeed, flexible working hours are available to anyone in the company should they wish to negotiate it with their line manager. Pochin’s view is that it is fully committed to a work/life balance as overall it makes employees more productive, she explains.

Her colleagues on site have got used to the arrangement after some initial scepticism. ”They know I always get the work done,” she says. She adds that “there is a lot of pressure on men also to work a lot of hours and not see their children”.

“I used to work half seven till half six, but now if I’m given stick I say ‘negotiate yourself a better contract!’ Besides if you can’t get the job done between the hours of eight to five, too much is being asked of you or you’re not doing it right.

“I’m ambitious, have won awards and think any company is lucky to have me. Yet I still feel I am not the norm in terms of flexible working and this kind of attitude needs to change to retain women on site.”

Her advice to others is to set out their position from the outset. “I remained site based all through my pregnancy. Risk assessments were carried out throughout my pregnancy and not once did I feel my work was affected. I would have hated to have been taken off site and shunted into a head office role, which I know often happens to other women. Pregnancy is not an illness,” she says.

Helen has already visited work since giving birth and is planning some structured keep-in touch days.

Naomi’s story: “You got pregnant, it’s your choice”

Naomi, again not her real name, is a site manager with 13 years in the industry. She works for a large contractor and is currently on maternity leave with her first child.

Naomi’s experience has left her feeling disillusioned with the construction industry as an employer. Currently receiving SMP, she is struggling to cope financially and no longer feels she has a viable career.

Her requests for flexible working have been turned down. “It seems so hard in construction as a pregnant woman I wouldn’t like to go through this again,” she says.

Her attempts to put together a business plan stating why they should reconsider their maternity policy as women in senior roles who are the main breadwinners in the family have a difficult time adjusting to SMP and additional financial support could help retain and support them, were thwarted.

She was met with a barrage of unhelpful comments, such as: “This is what we have to pay by law we are not going to change that... you got pregnant that’s your choice... you’re a woman, get on with it.”

How to have a baby

Maternity/paternity leave: What the law says

There is a lot of legislation surrounding maternity and paternity and I would therefore advise you to seek specialist advice but here is some rough guidance:

Maternity leave

Paternity leave

The Employer Helpbook for Statutory Maternity Pay can be found at

Dealing with pregnancy: Advice for employers

Most of the women interviewed for this article found that they were offered only basic maternity leave. Considering most were in management roles the drop in salary was significant and they would all have appreciated some help bridging this gap. By supporting your employees, for example by offering 50% of their wages, you have a better chance of attracting and retaining the best candidates.

Employers can help through keeping in touch (KIT) days. Most of our case studies said they wished they had taken more KIT days, but had not realised how much they needed them until they had returned to work. These brief spells back at work can be important for boosting confidence.

Each pregnancy is different, so consult with the employee, HR and H&S departments when compiling risk assessments and change these at three and six months as the pregnancy develops.

Dealing with pregnancy: Advice for parents

Announcing the birth

Put together a business plan for your pregnancy, including risk assessments (if you have a potentially hazardous job like working on site) and method statements, if you’re site based, that put across your capabilities.

Consider the company’s policy and explain if you feel there would be any benefits in making changes. It is still common to be the first site-based professional to fall pregnant within an organisation so helping your company understand the barriers may be something it would appreciate.

As the pregnancy develops

Manage expectations and tell people the hours you can and can’t work. Don’t be entirely inflexible, but do be firm.

Once you’re on maternity leave

Take advantage of keep in touch days. Our case studies found confidence to be the largest barrier when considering returning to work and stated that, in hindsight, they would have taken advantage of KITs.

Consider the new additional paternity leave, especially if you are the main breadwinner in the household. A mother’s body is likely to need at least six months to recover, but why not consider using paternity leave for the second six?

Research shows that your career is likely to be adversely affected by becoming a new mum, so if you are ambitious make sure you do what you can to prevent that, challenge people’s views, ensure they know how much work you are putting in and work hard on expanding your networks.

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