Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more


Louise Williams

Birse director.

Efforts to clamp down on sex discrimination in the workplace gained new impetus last week when the Equal Opportunities Commission published proposals for tighter legislation. If implemented, they will make life extremely uncomfortable for the male dominated construction industry, where women are few and often paid less than their male equivalents.

The EOC wants access to employers' salary records and wants to be able to prosecute those who fail to pay women the same as their male colleagues. It also wants to make it easier for employees to pursue sex discrimination claims.

Many construction firms have clearly failed to recruit and promote women - a fact that is made obvious by the rarity of women in the boardrooms of contractors and consultants.

One company trying to redress the balance is contractor Birse, one of the few to have actively developed a policy of promoting women all the way to the top of the company.

This summer it appointed civil engineer Louise Williams as a main board director, following a two year training programme aimed specifically at getting its female staff into senior positions.

Birse launched the programme as part of its recent and well publicised culture shift, which includes 'empowering' its workforce and promoting women to senior positions.

Thirty five women from across the company - including chairman Peter Birse's PA - joined the training programme. With six months to go, 10 including Williams had emerged as front running candidates for a job on the board.

Her subsequent appointment as a director is by no means a token one. Williams has a track record similar to many of her male peers, having worked her way up through the ranks after graduating from City University with a civil engineering degree in 1988.

Starting as a junior engineer at Sir Robert McAlpine, she progressed via a series of building and civils projects to the A50 improvement near Stoke, where she was senior engineer. She then became Birse's regional manager for the south west.

As a Birse director, Williams has overall responsibility for a number of major construction projects in the South West and head up the company's programme to improve efficiency on site in line with the Egan recommendations.

Williams believes that women have much to bring to construction. 'It's about getting a balance of men and women,' she says. 'Women bring diversity to the industry. They bring compassion and rationality and are better at different things.'

Women, she says, are much better at juggling more than one task, while men tend to be good at focusing on one thing at a time. She also has to juggle her career with bringing up two small children.

Her presence in the boardroom has already had an effect. One director recently told her that since her appointment there had been a marked decline in macho behaviour at some meetings, while decision making has become less ego driven.

As one of the few women to have risen to the top of the civil engineering profession, Williams is conscious of the way discrimination occurs in construction.

'There is very little deliberate discrimination,' she says. The problem is more one of the entrenched, unspoken attitudes of employers reluctant to promote women to important jobs for fear of losing them if they decide to take time off to have children.

In the construction industry, Birse at least has shown that such views are becoming increasingly outdated.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.