Women in Construction: Changing the Mindset

Lay Kiat Neo
As a female project manager, working in a traditionally male-dominated field brings with it many challenges. I share how I have overcome them.

I have always been interested in the construction industry. I often picture myself in my old age, pointing to a skyscraper in some part of the world and telling my granddaughter that I was involved in the construction of that building. Hopefully, she’d look at me in awe and think, “That’s cool!” I attained my Civil Engineering degree from National University of Singapore (NUS), and started my career as a project engineer, working on the construction of Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resorts. Following that, I joined Faithful+Gould in June 2011 as an assistant track and civil manager on the Singapore Grand Prix and subsequently relocated to the Middle East in 2014.

The most rewarding part of my job is seeing the design come to life, and knowing that buildings last a long time. I feel immense pride and joy whenever I see the structure or hear anyone talk about it. Having said that, as a woman working in a historically male-dominated field comes with many challenges. In this article, I share my experiences in construction, the barriers I faced, and how I overcame them.

Don’t Let Negative Stereotypes Hold You Back

It is important not to have a mindset that women are treated unfairly to avoid falling victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy. I remember being “invisible” on site. Some of the men I worked with deliberately ignored me and did not include me in discussions even though I was right in front of them! This behaviour upset me at first, but I quickly learnt to shift my focus from annoyance at the person to the discussion on hand so that constructive solutions could be offered to resolve any issues.

The most rewarding part of my job is seeing the design come to life, and knowing that buildings last a long time.

Producing quality work was the best way to remove any pre-conceived notion others may have had about me and my technical capabilities. I ensured that I verified my own solutions and observations by doing my own site visits and getting my hands dirty to understand the progress and issues taking place on the ground.

It is also important to be well prepared for meetings, and through my regular site visits, I am equipped with an intimate understanding of progress and issues, so that I can respond to any queries, or to provide customised solutions that have the clients’ best interests at heart. I eventually earned their respect as a project manager and my advice was often sought after to support any decision making.

Recognise Differences in Working Styles

Be objective and reflect on how we can better tailor our management style to suit different individuals according to their backgrounds, personalities and cultures. In any project, especially in the United Arab Emirates, it is common to have people from the different nationalities and cultural backgrounds working together as a team. Even within a small project committee, there would be many nationalities, various working styles and ways of interpreting and resolving issues. Therefore, identifying each person's work methods very early in the project is key to finding the most efficient way to work with or manage them.

For instance, in one of my projects, I presented a comprehensive report on a project’s status to a key stakeholder, but he did not react positively, as I had expected him to. I later learnt that he was a ‘big picture’ type who only wanted to know high-level project updates and what the significant risks were. However, in another project, I met others who expected to receive updates at least twice a day and in detail. I could not quite put my finger on why some people responded well to my working style, and some didn’t. I was perplexed.

Producing quality work was the best way to remove any pre-conceived notion others may have had about me and my technical capabilities.

I was then introduced to the Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument during a Management Development Course. This gave me insight into how different people processed information differently – some are more visual while others need to know details to be in control. This knowledge has helped me manage many clients, stakeholders and colleagues, and has been instrumental in my success to date.

Shaping Your Career

My career path has been relatively smooth despite being a minority in a leadership position within the construction industry in Dubai. In November last year, I was fortunate to receive the Middle East Consultants’ Rising Star award. I was also shortlisted for the Construction Week Project Manager of the Year for 2016, in which I was commended for demonstrating an exceptional level of skill and vision based on Clifford Chance and Roche Diagnostics office fit-outs. I attribute these successes to the support I get from the management and marketing teams who believed in me and put me forward for the awards.

Furthermore, knowing your career goals and doing a job that you feel strongly about are critical to both success and enjoying your day-to-day work. We can only give our best if we truly like what we are doing, and when we know that whatever we are doing now will eventually bring us to where we want to be. So, have an open mind and be excited to try and enjoy new things. I am a firm believer that even a bad experience is a good life experience. With this in mind, what is there to stop us from stepping into the unknown?

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