Interview by Peter Brett Cristina Lanz-Azcarate - London and South East Chair of National Association of Women in Construction.
Originally from Spain and a qualified architect, Cristina moved to London in 1998. London interested her because of its open nature and multiculturalism and she has thrived on the professional challenges she has faced – winning several awards in the process. Diversity in work also seems to appeal to her; she has worked on projects in conservation areas, furniture design, and regeneration developments as well as co-founding and running the design atelier EURA. She prides herself on developing and sustaining good creative relationships with her clients and design team, so it seems as though she is an ideal person to be chair of an organization that is developing the role and image of women in construction.
ToolBUSINESS+HIRE was keen to interview Cristina to get her additional “take” on the acknowledged skills shortages in the construction industry- after all we can’t afford to ignore the potential and skills of half the population simply because of outdated notions of job roles.
I started by asking Cristina about the ways in which schools and further education have got involved with training and recruiting suitable candidates for the construction industry. She informed me that there are many ways in which the message can get through – via schools, training colleges, individual businesses and via higher education too. The message is also very inclusive as none of the career days, work experience placements and taster days exclude anyone who wants to attend. However, we all like to see people who “look like us” at these events, so there are still barriers for certain sections of society. Cristina acknowledges that there is more work to do in this area and NAWIC is keen to put across, particularly in schools, that work in construction can be varied, interesting and a challenging and well paid career choice.
Slightly tongue in cheek, I asked Cristina whether ‘White Van Woman’ would ever become as common a phenomenon as ‘White Van Man’. Apparently I am well out of date in this respect. Not only are there many female independent tradespeople in fields as diverse as painting and decorating and locksmithing in London and the South East, but there are regional companies too. One such is the humourously named “Stopcocks”, a group of independent female plumbers who use their gender as a USP. For some customers, especially independent women I would guess, a female tradesperson can often be less threatening, unpatronising, more trustworthy and able to explain what they are doing in simple language rather than trying to confuse clients with technical speak.
Having listened to a radio programme recently in which a survey had found that women can sometimes be charged up to 40% more than men for the same repair work on a car, these USPs could be a significant factor in why women, in particular, might choose a female tradesperson to work for them.
Progress is patchy though. Cristina told me about some women she knew who had worked for small male–owned companies who had had very good experiences. They had been encouraged and enabled on equal terms to their male counterparts. But of course for every example, there is a counter example – again the message is ”More to do to get rid of preconceptions and stereotypes”.
Cristina went on to explain that when it comes to ethnic diversity in the trades there are also some ongoing issues to confront. Monitoring of entrants into various trades has shown that there is still a lot of room to encourage women from ethnically diverse backgrounds into the trades, but that will involve changing attitudes of families and cultures and that is a very hard job. As usual, providing opportunities, examples and encouragement is probably the best way forward.
I also asked Cristina whether she had perceived a North/South Divide in attitudes towards female tradespeople. She informed me that recent surveys done by the organization seems to indicate that that educational colleges and schools in Birmingham and the North East have been just as active in promoting gender and ethnic diversity in the trades with similar results to the South East region so perhaps “traditional” views about “up North” are not current at all.
Cristina rounded off the interview by explaining a bit more about the missed opportunities in explaining to potential candidates about the wide variety of careers available in construction. There are jobs in construction that are office based and many other jobs that involve prefabrication, logistics and design where “getting your hands dirty” is not a requirement, for those who might find this aspect of the trade off putting. She said that the industry is still not communicating well enough about the opportunities and conditions of work on a modern construction site. Both parents and potential candidates need to be better informed about the educational and career opportunities available in construction work if the target numbers are to be met.
High quality apprenticeships and training make for the highly skilled tradespeople needed to build the structures that our world-renowned architects are designing and Cristina is convinced that taking candidates on site visits to experience the skills, craftsmanship and variety of opportunities as well as the buzz created by being involved in a creative team effort is a vital part of recruitment. We can’t simply rely on the fact that overseas trained people will rescue us from our skills shortages.