‘We need more skilled labour, yet we’re ignoring 50 per cent of the workforce’

Picture from 10% and Rising by Leonora Saunders

Picture from 10% and Rising by Leonora Saunders - Credit: Archant

Driven by a desire to employ women alongside men on her building sites, property developer and commentator Marta de Sousa has set up Built by Her, a campaign to inspire young women to enter the construction industry

Marta de Sousa. Photo: Kay Lockett

Marta de Sousa. Photo: Kay Lockett - Credit: Archant

I grew up in the family property business in Portugal so I’ve been going on to building sites since I was a toddler. I grew up seeing my mum on site so when I started in the business, for me it was very normal to go on site.

I quickly realised that I was working in a man’s world. I would go on to site and get wolf whistled and then have to walk in and say ‘I’m your boss’, so it was an interesting position to be in.

I was thinking that I’d like to employ some women on my building sites so I tried, unsuccessfully. Some women were working for a month and after a year or so they’d drop out and leave the industry altogether, some women just didn’t have the skills to start.

I realised something had to be done to get women interested in taking on apprenticeships but I found that the male banter culture is quite a big barrier for women in the industry. We need to get more women to change that culture, which means we need more women being trained.

Only two per cent of people working in the trades are women and in some cases, in trades like brick laying and roofing, the number is so low that it’s actually unmeasurable, according to the Office For National Statistics.

With the housing crisis we need to build more homes and we need more skilled labour yet we’re actually ignoring 50 per cent of the workforce. That’s where Built By Her comes in.

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It’s a government-backed campaign designed to re-brand the construction industry and change the perception that it’s a male domain. We’ve got a national advertising campaign, in collaboration with Mr President ad agency and photographer Leonora Saunders, whose 10 per cent and Rising project photographed women working in industries where they make up less than 10 per cent of the workforce. She was the perfect partnership because the idea of the campaign is to create these amazing, empowering images of women, because we need role models.

Alongside that we’ll run talks and workshops in schools for 16 to 18-year-old young women where female industry role models from companies like Crossrail, HS2 and Skanska will talk about what they do. We’ll also give careers advisers information about how they can advise women to get into construction and then they can sign up to workshop days that we’ll hold around the country.

There are so many types of job within construction yet when we picture a builder we always picture the need for that physical strength but I think both sexes can do all the construction jobs. You don’t need that much strength to be a plumber and you can earn up to £100,000 a year. You can work your own hours, you can work anywhere and you’re building something that people are going to use and enjoy.

A great example of a construction project that was led by women is Waterloo Bridge, built during WWII. They were completely forgotten and never photographed. That’s what our project’s all about, because if you don’t have the role models out there, people think that women can’t do it.

This new generation of young women are powerful and independent and I think if they are shown a challenge they’ll take it on. It’s going to take hard work, it’s going to be hard but there’s a pride that they’ll get from overcoming that challenge. The rewards they’ll get are immense.