“We have moved ahead within the industry and there are lot more women in the construction field”
“The biggest achievement would be that my opinion and work is appreciated at the level where not many women are around. However, the most important accomplishment is to open doors and encourage other women to work in the construction industry.”
As part of the Women in Construction series, Jason Saundalkar talks to CKR Consulting Engineers’ Sujata Gupta about her influences, career, and gender diversity in the construction industry…
What drove you to get into construction and your very first role in the industry? What were some of the influences that set you on your path?
When I started with electrical engineering, there weren’t many women studying or working in the field, but my mother always supported and encouraged me to do what I want. After graduating, everyone asked me to be a professor as that would be easier, but I wanted to be a design engineer for high voltage systems in India. That was in the early 1990s. After that, I moved to Muscat, Oman with my family. There I got interested in building services and soon after, I landed my first job as an electrical consultant in the construction field and I haven’t looked back. It wasn’t necessarily a planned journey, but once I got there, it was right for me, and I’ve enjoyed it for 25 years now.
Tell us about your career, mentioning key milestones.
I started my career in early 1990 in India as a design engineer, however moved to the Gulf in 1996 in the construction field. My life took a turn when I moved to Dubai in 2003 and worked as project engineer in CKR Consulting for the Madinat Jumeirah phase three project. I was based at the construction site full time and was only woman engineer on site.
Later, I worked as the electrical head of department in KEO Engineering Consultants, where I led a team of engineers and designed many sustainable projects. At Meraas, I was head of MEP managing major projects such as Blue Waters, Ain Dubai, La Mer and Marsa Al Seef. Now, I’m back to my design roots in CKR Consulting as technical director.
The biggest achievement would be that my opinion and work is appreciated at the level where not many women are around. However, the most important accomplishment is to open doors and encourage other women to work in the construction industry.
What would you say is your proudest moment in the industry?
When you work hard and smart, people can see how sincere and earnest you are about being part of the team and helping a project to completion. Since I had an urge to prove that I can do it, I set high targets for myself and worked towards that.
I’ve had many good moments in my career; when I completed my first project including design, supervision, testing and commissioning, designed the first cine-multiplex in Muscat, worked on a Mosque project and many others. But, one of my proudest moments was when I completed the Madinat Jumeirah project in 2004 and the project then bagged Best Project of the Year in 2005. I felt that I had managed my profession and family with two small kids well, felt myself at top of the world.
Later, I along with my team in KEO International Consultants designed many award-winning projects.
What are some of the barriers to women entering the construction industry? What was your personal experience?
In the early days of my career, while looking for job, one company told me that as a policy, they don’t hire women! I was surprised to hear that and the reason given was maternity leave and that women take leave more often, cannot work late shifts etc. I couldn’t get a job there but we have moved ahead within the industry and there are lot more women in the construction field.
There are still, in some ways, biases. When people walk into a room, they don’t necessarily assume that I’m the electrical technical director of a company. Based on a project site during the early years of my career, it was no surprise that few people thought I wouldn’t be able to handle the site and a physically draining job.
The industry has its good points and its bad ones, but I always like to focus on the good. I met with many people in the industry, who believed in me; Mike Berry & Anil Menon of CKR supported me during my first job in Dubai. When you work hard and smartly, you will definitely get through.
How do you see the GCC construction markets changing in the coming years? Share your thoughts and views on the market.
When I first started in construction, nine times out of 10, I would find myself in a situation where I was the only female in the room. The first two companies I joined, I was the first woman engineer in the company. That has changed dramatically over the last 20 years.
Now, I’m not the only woman in the room. The construction sector being the one the largest sectors in GCC has many opportunities and companies have made an effort to encourage women to enter this industry and create a better environment for them, however there’s still a long way to go. Working with more women through internships and training will definitely lead to more diversity.
Everyone has a part to play in diversity and equal pay. What would you like to see government authorities and construction firms do to increase diversity and make pay a level playing field?
The construction industry should provide more entry level jobs to women. I have noticed that very few companies in the region have a concept of recruiting trainees from universities, which should be made compulsory for the industry. Better working environment and flexible hours will also help encourage women to be part of industry.
The government has many initiatives to increase diversity i.e. women education, women in politics, sports, equal pay level in government companies etc. They should also encourage continuous professional development trainings in coordination with educational institutes, which provide valuable experience to women and helps to increase diversity.
The government should also open vocational training centers for young professionals and should consider implementing rules, which defines the number of women in a company.
Besides authorities and construction firms, who else can play a part in increasing diversity and balancing pay scales?
Universities can play a major role in increasing diversity. Educational institutions should arrange training and internships as part of their curriculum. Arranging site visits to expose students to design and construction activities will also work quite well, and universities can even invite people from the industry to welcome students and show them what the industry is like. This will help students choose the right field.
Media can also play an important role in working to remove social and psychological barriers that impede the full integration of women into the workforce. They should highlight the work that women are doing in the construction field, to encourage and inspire young professions, same as Middle East Consultant magazine is doing.
As a woman in the industry, what has your experience been working in the GCC construction sector? If you have worked in markets outside the GCC, how does your experience here compare with what you’ve experienced in other markets?
Generally, I’ve found people are cooperative and will work with you, however for that to happen, a woman has to prove her capabilities. Once they know you, things work well. Also, due to social structure, women have responsibilities at home as well, which gives the perception they she will not do overtime and take late shifts. Due to these perceptions, people prefer not to have women employees. I have faced this situation earlier in my career, however we have moved beyond that as an industry.
I am from India and in India there are a lot more women in the construction field – in that market, companies hire trainees from universities for entry level positions. That said, the growth in the number of women I’ve seen in the construction field in the UAE in the last five years has been tremendous.
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge women in the construction sector face in GCC countries? How can these challenges be addressed?
Attaining high level positions is a challenge for women, and this is the case in other sectors as well. Mentoring is important, and I think senior executives in the construction industry should make themselves more available to individuals or groups, who would not necessarily be considered typical players in the construction industry.
It’s also important to have strong female role models to draw inspiration from and look up to, as you progress in your own career. Hence, it is important to give women a voice in the industry. I also believe that men play more of a role than they realise to combat these challenges, mentoring not only professionals but also students – it is important to get them interested in engineering. This will help to increase the number of potential women candidates.
In doing your job, what sort of discrimination (if any) have you faced and how did you/employer address it?
Within the industry, there are people that have the perception that women can’t work at construction sites or hold high positions. The only way to prove them wrong is to put in the work, whether that’s attaining the required certifications or ensuring continuous professional development in order to stay one step ahead of others. People appreciate knowledge and skills.
With new technologies i.e. BIM, 3D printing, better communication networks etc., there is enormous scope for women in the construction industry. They can work from anywhere, any time and can give 100% or even more.
Do you feel there’s a limit to how far you can progress within your respective organisation?
I don’t see any limitation in progressing within CKR, everyone has been given an equal opportunity to grow in the company based on their knowledge and skills. According to statistics, there aren’t that many women in high positions, so there definitely has to be more emphasis to empower women.
At the same time, there are many who have reached top positions and became role models. Now, women are leading the countries and they have proved themselves in every field, so I’m quite positive about the future of women in the construction industry.
How does CKR approach diversity in the workplace? What more can your firm do to increase diversity?
CKR truly believes in diversity and I am an example of this culture. I worked with CKR in 2003 and was based on site; I remember walking around in my safety boots and helmet, managing the project’s electrical works. CKR has always looked for talent irrespective of gender and we now have many young women engineers working in our company, all of who are given equal opportunity to work on designs and on the construction site.
Further to that, we recently participated in a career fair to inspire young engineers to be part of the construction industry. We are also arranging on the job training for the team, to enhance the knowledge and purge any fears they have about a construction site.
How do you personally push for diversity and equal pay in the construction sector? Are you involved in any groups/councils etc. that focus on increasing diversity and equal pay?
I am associated with IET who has the woman network and they promote woman in the engineering field. I mentor women to be confident and arrange CPDs to be knowledgeable. I also talk to my friends and colleagues to encourage woman in their family to be educated and remove social and psychological barriers that impede the full integration of women into the workforce.
What advice would you give to a woman entering the GCC construction industry today?
The industry is evolving with new technology and there are numerous opportunities for women to go ahead and create a positive impact in the industry. As more and more women secure leading positions in the construction sector and become role models, more young women will be inspired to be part of this industry.
Construction is about problem solving and we must learn something new every day. Decision makers and companies just have to understand that having more women is a competitive advantage. So, no matter where you stand in your respective career, look for relationships and knowledge. There is no replacement for hard work. Just be confident that you have the training, the skills and the ability to make an impact in the industry and be remembered for it.
To support the drive towards gender balance in the industry, Middle East Consultant and meconstructionnews.com are highlighting female construction professionals in a series of profiles. By telling their stories and sharing their experiences on our print and digital platforms, we hope to inspire more women to join this vibrant industry.