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Graham Watts Big women


Women are big in construction right now. Two women, in particular, have become very big in August.

After a week of uncertainty, the summer reshuffle eventually established Beverley Hughes as parliamentary under-secretary of state - junior minister to you and I - responsible for construction. Since her new 'boss', the promoted Nick Raynsford, retains construction in his portfolio, it is unlikely that Beverley will be the construction minister but she is probably the first woman to have some direct ministerial responsibility for our industry.

When I informed a colleague of her appointment, he assumed that this Beverley was a man. It was not an uncommon name for boys decades ago but today how many female Bevs must there be for every male of the same name? Somehow it is not surprising that the construction industry naturally assumes a construction minister to be a man!

Hot on the heels of the reshuffle came the news that Jennie Price is to be the next chief executive of the Construction Confederation.

In some ways this was surprising. Not that she was the best candidate for the job: that much was clear to anyone with knowledge of how the industry operates. But we are talking trade associations here and, specifically, the biggest trade association in the most macho industry of them all.

Hughes' appointment is a natural consequence of what happened on 1 May 1997. The gaggle of new women MPs (unkindly dubbed 'Blair's Babes' by the tabloids) broke the parliamentary mold and the best of these will find their way into Government just as night follows day. Hughes is clearly in the front rank of these. Her early career was in the probation service and higher education and so her appointment might be an interesting icon for equality of gender within construction but it can't be any more than that.

Price's appointment does indicate a major shift in industry attitudes. All her predecessors at the Confederation in its past guises (remember BEC, FCEC, NFBTE?) have been men in their 50s and now it has appointed a woman in her 30s. WOW! The men who made the decision (for I'm sure that they were all men) deserve congratulations for having the courage to appoint the best person irrespective of age or gender.

The Government is rightly making a big issue of 'respect for people' and equal opportunity in all its forms is the biggest part of respecting all the people. Some might argue that it is too late. The sands are already shifting as evidenced by the new role models such as Price. There is some truth in this. Half the young professionals who make up the team developing the Movement for Innovation are women and they are all very impressive. But there is no room for complacency.

There are three ages of man in my gender's attitude towards women. Men whose formative years pre-dated the 1960s still refer to women as 'ladies' and whose respect for women is profound but does not generally extend to equality in the workplace. Those of us who were brought up in the '60s and '70s tend to have a more open attitude. We studied alongside women and we have always worked with - and sometimes for - them. There is no conscious distinction in the workplace. Even this generation has its faults. At a NUS conference 25 years ago, a now prominent woman MP threw me through a door because I opened it for her. Despite this painful and humiliating lesson, I am sorry to confess that opening doors for women remains a natural instinct!

Outside my personal failing, the generation to be concerned about is today's teenagers and 20-somethings. 'New laddism' is deeply disturbing. Encouraged by millions of lads' mags and tabloid newspapers, we are breeding this 'third age' of men to treat women with contempt. Against this context, the Government's 'respect for people' initiative is needed now more than ever before.

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