Women represent only 11% of the construction workforce in the UK. Here, we speak to the winner of the ‘Best Young Woman in Construction Award 2020’, Sophie Newcombe, Senior Design Manager at ISG plc, who is set to become an inspirational role model to help change all that.

Construction is in Sophie’s DNA. She is the fourth generation of builders in her family – and the first woman. Sophie has worked for ISG plc for almost three years now; starting out as a freelance design manager before she was promoted to her current position of Senior Design Manager in the fit-out – agility sector. So how did it all start?

“For as long as I can remember, I have been a ‘builder’. As a little girl I would design and create model houses and cities, huts in the woods and igloos in the snow. I was fascinated by my own ability to turn an idea into reality; finding it quietly magical to turn my imaginings into something physical and to understand that the possibilities were, therefore, endless. It is this feeling that has driven me throughout my career in construction; the joy of helping people create their dreams in the real world. When I was very young, I would jump in my dad’s work van and visit sites with him, I loved watching him build and he was always teaching me something. As soon as I understood the meaning of the word, I wanted to be an architect, and even in my early teenage years, I had aspirations of one day running my own construction company. I was very focused on this during school, selecting the right combination of art, technical drawing and physics to set me up for university.”

Sophie worked in New Zealand for several years as an architectural designer and project manager, where generally, the building codes are very similar to the UK’s, as are the way contracts are set up, which, Sophie says, has been a blessing; meaning that it has been relatively easy to get up to speed in both countries. There are some differences though; construction methods differ dramatically especially with requirements for earthquake resilience, and she found that especially in London, programmes are faster and spend is higher.

Day-to-day, Sophie’s role is very varied, she said: “I can spend a morning reviewing shop drawings and sketching details then an afternoon walking around site with a client looking at alternative material finishes. “Another day I might be undertaking a factory visit to check on progress, writing a design programme and chairing a design workshop with 20 subcontractors and consultants.

“My role in the Agility AGF leadership team means I also provide support and guidance to all of our design managers and am heavily involved in the bidding and set up of our projects.” Sophie is very ambitious and in the long-term, hopes to set up her own construction company. “I love the idea of building a business from the ground up (excuse the pun) and providing an end-to-end service for clients. Because I have been a designer and a builder it seems fitting to tie everything together one day.

“For now though I see myself having a long career with ISG Ltd plc; the opportunities are endless and exciting and I am so fortunate to work for a company dedicated to its people’s growth.”

But, should we be concerned that there are so few women in construction? Sophie said: “For me it’s simple; diversity produces better results. If you have a room full of people with the same background, personality and skillsets, no one is going to challenge one another to think differently and change the status quo.

“If we aren’t changing, we aren’t growing. The more diverse we can make the construction industry, the quicker it will develop. Productivity in the UK has lagged significantly in the past 15 years, and, with construction at its heart we need to be looking beyond hours-worked to improve this.”

This leads to the question of what skills can women offer that men can’t – if any? Sophie said: “individuals have different skills, its not so much related to gender. However, life experiences, which are often shaped by what society expects of us, give us perspective. It’s important that we seek input from many different perspectives. “I think mandatory diversity training is essential. We all need to challenge our preconceptions and question our inherent bias. Most people don’t even realise they carry prejudice, and education is important in removing it from recruitment.

“Representation is also key, seeing someone you can relate to in a company or position inspires belief that you can do it too.”

A career for life
“I have worked hard to position myself in a career where I use technical knowledge, creativity and my love of bringing people together and I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else.

“Within construction there is an infinite number of paths available so if I ever feel the need for a new challenge or something slightly different, its available to me in a space where I’m not losing years of experience. Plus, I am a creator at heart and can’t see that changing. “Some of the most challenging projects that I have worked on were following the devastating Christchurch earthquake in February 2011, helping peoples’ lives return to normal. I saw the impact there that construction can have on people and communities.

“I’ve also delivered beautiful homes and passion projects for families, built schools and worked with blue chip tech firms to create inspirational workplaces. “Right now, I’m delivering a roll out of new Job Centres to help get people back to work following the pandemic – it is so rewarding to be a part of something so important to so many.”

Every career or job brings its own worries though, so we asked Sophie what she does to get the stresses of work out of her hair, and quite simply, she heads for the hills – and a not completely unrelated restoration project. “I love to get into the mountains. I’m at my happiest and most free when on an adventure – as soon as I’m climbing, hiking, kayaking or snowboarding, all stress disappears. I’m currently building a campervan conversion at home which is proving to be a fun and challenging process.”

Support for workers
Even though construction projects are still live during the third lockdown, the need to maintain appropriate social distance on site and supply chain delays are having an impact on productivity. The suicide rate for construction workers in the UK is more than three times the national average, and Sophie worries that as the fit-out sector is renowned for its fast pace and high pressure, the odds could be stacked against those whose livelihoods depend on it.

“Those working in construction pride themselves on a ‘just keep going’, stoic attitude. As a community of people, it is not in our nature to ask for help. I believe the biggest challenge now is for employers; we need a culture shift that starts with changing the expectations of workers.

“Some great work is being done to provide mental health support services, access to training and general awareness, but I think as a high-pressure sector within the industry we need to look what we are doing to create the problem in the first place. I can see it happening, and everyone has a part to play.”

Fit-out future
Innovation is constantly disrupting and evolving our sector with prefabrication having a profound effect on construction generally, and Sophie predicts that we will see more of this in fit-out. “We already move at such high speeds in this sector and we are a prime candidate for responding to and developing the use of ‘ready to go’ products.

“BIM has so much potential but I think it is still underutilised in fit-out. While we are using 3D modelling for coordination purposes, it is rarely used to its full capabilities because we work to quick design timeframes. So many efficiencies could be gained and clashes avoided if we pushed for the use of open data collaboration.”

Workspace fit-out
As discussed at the FIS conference last November, we know that post-COVID, there will be a new focus for workplaces, where they will become more of a ‘gathering hub’ than a place people go every day to do the same thing. Sophie said: “I’m working with many designers who are looking at ways to encourage people to come into the office for collaboration and creativity. Offices will become far more versatile with fewer rows of desks and more huddle and
presentation spaces.

“As people move more naturally into often working from home, it seems that booking a desk for the day might be more appropriate and with teams being split between home working and the office, IT/AV systems will both advance and be far more common. Simple things such as sensor taps throughout and automatic doors are already creeping in and becoming normal.”

The changes forced upon us by the pandemic have encouraged those who can to permanently adapt the way they work, for example, Zoom meetings will probably still have a place even when we can actually meet in person.

For Sophie, she found that for design it was very beneficial to host, review and coordinate meetings by video conference as suddenly, getting everyone in one place became easy, and showing the development of a detail or explain a drawing is straightforward. When designers are working to tight timeframes, wasting time travelling is a thing of the past when a meeting can be done virtually.

Advice, guidance and support
However successful we are at work, there is still a need sometimes to discuss problems and get a different perspective. Advice may be offered and we take it or leave it; in Sophie’s case, her director, Darren O’Brien, has been a fantastic mentor to her, she said: “He has an incredible knack of sensing when I really need advice or support, but also gives me the freedom to find my own way.

Throughout my career I have found that so long as you make it clear to your seniors that you have ambition and drive; they tend to want to help you get there.

“I’m still in touch with the mentors I had years ago, and though I would now consider them friends, I know that as my career continues to progress, I could look to them for guidance again. “I was once told that I needed to be “more vulnerable” to aid my development as a leader, hearing this so early in my career felt counterintuitive, especially being a woman in a male dominated industry, but being myself and being open has brought down so many barriers that I would have faced had I been guarded, or had I faked confidence.”

If we are lucky, family and those close to us support us and gently influence our lives. Sophie’s partner, Trent, has been unwavering and unconditional in his support for her and her career. “He has this passionate, fiery belief in my ability to achieve anything, and when you have someone like that in your life it becomes easier to believe it yourself. “Trent has put up with my many long hours and late nights, pushed me when I’ve needed it and is always ready with a glass of wine and a foot rub at the end of a hard day, all this while having a challenging career himself. “To top it all, he is total feminist and is always pushing to better understand the challenges women face and be the best ally he can be.”

Constructing a future
“To be recognised as the ‘Best Young Woman in Construction’ is an honour, and it means so much to me to stand shoulder to shoulder with so many incredible women in the industry. The wonderful thing is that the award isn’t about pitching women against each other, but about allowing us an opportunity to celebrate our achievements together as a united force. I would not be where I am today without the incredible support and mentoring I have received from other women in the industry and I am wholeheartedly committed to paying this forward.

“Construction has given me the opportunity to travel the world and have a varied and fruitful career, I’ve tried to remain true to what I want and who I am, while having as much fun as possible. I’ve managed that and still been deemed worthy of this award, so a fantastic result of this would be showing young women that there isn’t a ‘right’ way of doing it.

“My aim is to continue nurturing those who feel the same way as I do about building, and to show them all of the many opportunities available to them in the world of construction. I have been a mentor for the Placed Academy, (www. placed.org.uk) working with some incredible teenagers as they undertake a course in design and the built environment. It has been inspirational to see such a diverse group of young people with unbridled ambition and passion already, and hopefully seeing me follow a slightly different path into construction proves that it is possible for anyone.”

ISG plc has signed the Young Women’s Trust’s pledge to improve apprenticeships for women, to provide fully inclusive employment opportunities and works to recruit more women to ensure its workforce is more reflective of society.