• Ambitious, educated and focused – the girls are here to stay!

    15 August 2011

    For women working in the construction industry, there have been many notable changes in recent years, not least the number of women assuming roles that in previous generations have been primarily occupied men, such as architects, engineers, draughtspersons, human resource managers, surveyors and others. And while, the road to acceptance and a level playing field for women has been hard fought and hard won, networking savvy, empathetic and lateral-thinking women also continue to garner increasing support across both genders and assume ever greater leadership roles.

    So what does this new generation of very ambitious, highly qualified and industry-astute women really think of an industry that for many decades was regarded as an incontestable, “enter at your own risk”, hotbed of male chauvinism? PRC magazine assembled a gathering of highly intelligent, career-orientated women, threw a few controversial topics at them and sat back and listened, riveted as they shed their usually diplomatic corporate images and embarked upon a rarely heard and very honest appraisal of their chosen industry. And we should all listen and absorb what they say, especially as many of you will possibly work for one of these women in the future.

     Women and success

     Hillary Clinton said, “Politics is seen in most societies, including our own, I would add, as a largely male sport – unarmed combat – and women are very often ignored or pushed aside in their efforts to gain or consolidate power.”    

     “There have always been successful women through the ages,” says Alice To, Legal Director, Pinsent Masons. “Look back over the centuries and there are hundreds of women who have assumed powerful positions, whether in politics, the corporate world, medicine or some other field. The only negative to this situation occurs when there is some dinosaur of a woman in a powerful position who has seemingly forgotten her own personal struggle to reach the top and will not allow female subordinates to also grow their careers.”

    Several nod in agreement, however, Leigh & Orange Ltd Principal Director, Ivy Lee, states that she agrees, but with a few provisos. “Not to detract from what Mrs Clinton stated, I think it depends where you are placed in society,” says Lee. “Nowadays, there are often more female candidates applying for a position than males and some women worry that one day this may result in men starting to say that there are just too many women in certain industries.”

    HR consultant, Jenny Deli, takes the middle road, stating: “Hong Kong is a different animal to most other countries, and the situation is also much better in some sectors than others, such as politics and business, however, there still exist companies here today where the only women employees are receptionists, secretaries and the like, so even here there is still a way to go yet.”

    Chao Wu, Senior Associate Director, Benoy, interjects, stating: “Well, cast your minds back just two generations and things were very different, marriages were arranged like business deals between families and if it came down to finances, it was the girl who often missed out on going to school altogether or had to sacrifice her tertiary education so a brother could attend university. Women are more educated now, so traditions such as this are (thankfully) fast disappearing.”

    “Women’s values have also changed over the years,” adds To. “Mums and Grans in China were previously referred to as “rice coupon” wives, meaning that they wanted to be married, as marriage represented lifelong security.”

    “But they were also submissive, doing what they were told and what was expected of them, at least until their husband died,” says Lee. “Once the husband died, it was like they gained a new lease on life, and they would do whatever they wanted to, content in the knowledge that they had finally reached an age when there was no longer anyone alive who could tell them what they could and could not do.”

     Workplace behaviours in the 21st century

    “Another issue is the fact that some men think that nice or good work is only ever done by men,” says Chao. “I have experienced that when making a presentation and the boss actually had the cheek to say to me: “It’s an excellent presentation, who prepared it for you?”

    “Sometimes I’m made to feel more like someone’s P.A. than an executive, and this indicates to me that there is still a long way to go in regards to male perceptions about women in general, let alone women executives.”

    “Only bosses would think like that, never a business partner,” says Deli. “Personally I have not cared when this has happened, as I’ve usually had another agenda anyway and that was to teach bosses about human resources and actually bridge the existing gap with employees, male or female.”

    “In construction, women often have the advantage when it comes to sexist bosses. A boss once took me into a negotiation meeting, where the men were swearing like troopers and smoking non-stop. Less than two years later the man in question had left the company and I was delegated to chair the meetings. I then had the advantage, and the first thing I did was to ban all swearing and introduced regular breaks during long meetings so people, like me, could leave the room for 10-15 minutes and enjoy a cigarette break in peace and without offending non-smokers! Behaviour changed and meetings became positive discussions.”

     Lee concurs, adding that when men speak to men, it often ends up in an argument. “Women are much better communicators, they listen and absorb, they calmly think about what the other person has said and then respond in a calm and rational way. I can’t say that I have ever witnessed two women going head to head in a fierce argument in the workplace. Most women I know would, at the very least, either invite the person to a neutral location outside the office to calmly discuss a contentious issue, or by way of calm discussion, resolve the issue rationally.”

     To agrees, stating: “Women are softer and more feminine, however, I also think that labourers are often more decent and considerate people deep down than many male executives. They seem to have been brought up with a greater respect for women than many executives.”

    Deli nods her head in total agreement, saying: “Being women in construction, if you stop and think about it, we really do have an advantage. We are clever, we can manipulate as well as anyone else in order to get things done, and we do it with far less shouting and fighting than members of the opposite sex!”

    Different perceptions

    “At conferences I attend, women often say that it is obvious that most hotels are designed by men,” continues Lee. “Simple things, like the positioning of sinks in in relation to other bathroom amenities. Onsite too, while many construction sites now provide a female toilet, you often find that it is located as far away from the site office as possible.”

    Chao agrees, saying: “Many architects are realising that males and females have different requirements, so they are finally starting to do things like increase the ratio of female to male toilets in shopping malls. If you did a headcount, there are generally many more women in a mall than men and most women will want to access the Ladies Room at least once while they are there. So, things are improving, albeit very gradually.”

    Deli states: “Well, I learned my interpersonal skills from women. Everyone, regardless of gender, should be more sensitive to humanity and its needs.”

    To concurs: “Yes, overall women do have an advantage as they are more attuned to people’s feelings and their needs.”

    Chao: “But not everyone has the same type of personality and allowances must be made for that as well.” 

    To: “I was indoctrinated to become a career woman and when I wanted to get an education, I was totally supported by my father, rather than my mother.” 

    Sweet Revenge 

    Lee: “People used to tell my mother that she must save all her money so she never even went out. Now that she is on her own, I have changed her mind and she goes out and enjoys herself, all because she released herself from slavishly saving every spare cent as she was previously expected to do. She is also a much happier person now that she gets out and meets people and has a social life.” 

    Deli: “My father was very conservative, but my mother was very avant garde and did things like swimming across the harbour. I think I have inherited traits from both parents, especially my mother, as I have never really worried about what society has “expected” me to do, however, I can also bide my time for, literally, years before finally dealing with someone who has previously crossed me.” 

    Chao: I was born in China, then moved to United Kingdom, then transferred to Hong Kong with my job. In Hong Kong, I am offered bigger projects to oversee here that I would only be assigned in UK after working for a company for about five years, so development, responsibility and promotion come much more quickly to women here. Also in UK, if western men walked in and discovered that I was chairing a meeting, they would make it obvious that they were decidedly uncomfortable and that creates tensions at the outset. I do not experience any of that negativity working here in Hong Kong.” 

    Deli: “Yes, but we should all remember that it is not always men who can be described as pigheaded fools. Just as many women also fit into that category. There also comes a time when we need to confront someone who is giving us a hard time at work. There are subtle ways of getting your own back or seeking revenge with a colleague you just can’t seem to get along with, however, again, the secret is to bide your time, and they will often get a dose of their own medicine from someone else without your needing to do anything at all.” 

    However, Lee cites the best example I have ever heard regarding sweet revenge. “I worked on a casino project in Macau,” says Lee. “There was one particular guy onsite that I simply hated facing every day. Everyone did. And yes, I did eventually get my revenge, or in this case sweet revenge. How? The gentleman in question is now … my husband!”

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