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Women in Construction: Irene Caravaca Valencia, Edge

“I’ve been mistaken for an interior designer but I’m pursuing an architecture career with no limits”

“It’s no secret that the construction industry has been dominated by men because of its nature of physical work. In the UAE, women in the construction industry represent a minority and as with any minority, we face some barriers.”

As part of the Women in Construction series, Edge’s Irene Caravaca Valencia talks about her influencers, 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?

Architecture is a discipline that can create new realities and it has the power to improve people’s lives and homes, making them more sustainable, safer, playful and kind. The relationship between homes, buildings, public spaces, squares and parks has always been interesting to me.

Construction has been running in my family from both of my grandparents to my father, my uncle and now to me. The noise, the smell, the speed, the action – I like the drill. My first role in the industry was design architect. In that role, I learned that in order to become a good designer it is important to know how design gets built and understand the harmony between design and constructability.

Tell us about your career, mentioning key milestones.

I did my studies in architecture between Sevilla (Spain) and Stuttgart (Germany) in two environments that have different approaches to learning design. In Spain, I found more flexibility when it comes to design and creative freedom. In Germany, I studied in a more technologically evolved university with a big lab, where we could build models of our designs with the opportunity to have them published or built in 1:1 scale.

I worked as a student in Spain and after completing my studies I found my first job as an architect in Germany, where I mainly worked for the Jewel of the Creek project in Dubai.  Eventually I transferred to the company’s Dubai office. At the beginning of 2015 I joined EDGE where I was assigned to work on a high-end residential building called 1/JBR, where I have had the opportunity to be involved from the concept design stage, all the way to the construction stage.

What would you say is your proudest moment in the industry?

I believe that women and men can both bring positive value to a professional environment. Men and women are different and their contributions can complement each other in design, construction, and problem solving. I am lucky to work for a firm that does not discriminate between genders and I believe this has enriched our work environment, as well as our designs and professional output.

What are some of the barriers to women entering the construction industry? What was your personal experience?

It’s no secret that the construction industry has been dominated by men because of its nature of physical work. In the UAE, women in the construction industry represent a minority and as with any minority, we face some barriers.

I have worked on a construction site which employed around a thousand people, out of which only three were ladies: a document controller, a client secretary and myself as an architect. Initially, our biggest problem was that there were only male toilets, until the client’s secretary designated her toilet for females.

Another issue I face regularly is being mistaken for an interior designer in site meetings with representatives of other disciplines. This has brought me to the conclusion that the role of an interior designer is seen as one for females, while the role of an architect is seen as one for males.

I believe that with time and more women joining the construction work place, issues like these will disappear, as men will become used to having women as colleagues and embrace gender diversity.

The GCC construction sector is still male dominated, however diversity is beginning to increase. If you agree with the above line, comment on what is driving this and how you see the GCC markets changing in the coming years? If you do not agree with the first line of this question, please share your thoughts/views of the market.

I believe that the market is slowly changing and women are being accepted more and more as equals in the construction industry in UAE. I feel that this is driven by women’s determination to pursue careers and grow professionally in the industry. As a female architect on a construction site, I never faced a day where my opinion was not heard or taken into consideration by my male colleagues and the males of other parties like the contractor, subcontractors or suppliers.

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?

In my opinion it would help in equality and diversity if the government provides some protection for employees based on regulations for salaries of different professions and seniority levels, regardless of gender or nationality. Ensuring that these regulations are common knowledge would help employers and employees set closer expectations.

Besides authorities and construction firms, who else can play a part in increasing diversity and balancing pay scales?

 I believe universities and schools could play a bigger part in promoting diversity and gender equality, especially in the UAE, where there is a rich mix of nationalities and cultures. Education is the key to a better future for everyone.

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 and observed in other markets?

While working in Germany, I did not feel any discrimination due to my gender, as it is quite common to find women working in the construction industry. As women in the GCC are not common in construction sites, I have faced some challenges. But, as mentioned before, I believe these challenges will disappear with time, and gender diversity awareness could certainly speed up this process.

What is the biggest challenge women in the construction sector face in GCC countries? How can these challenges be addressed?

One of the biggest challenges we face is juggling between having a family or a career and having to choose between two timelines, which cannot coexist at the moment. I believe an employer’s flexibility towards working from home and understanding the need for maternity/paternity leave and flexible working hours would be key in helping women to be able to maintain a better balance between work and family.

In doing your job, what sort of discrimination (if any) have you faced and how did Edge address it?

In some cases, women act as obstacles in other women’s careers. There are women in positions of power who do not facilitate the growth of other women through empowerment. I am not sure if this happens because they feel threatened by other women or because they still believe that men can do a better job.

Architecture and construction has been an industry dominated by men to this day. I personally believe that women, as well as men, can do an excellent job and the industry would benefit from everyone working together. It is key for both women and men to empower other women to bring out the best in them and promote equality.

Do you feel there’s a limit with regards to how far you can progress within Edge?

There is no limit to how far I can progress and I am positive that I would be given the same opportunity as any of my male colleagues who work as hard, and are as dedicated as I am.

How does the firm you currently work for approach diversity in the workplace? What more can your firm do to increase diversity?

I feel lucky to work for a firm which gives the same opportunity to their male and female employees. Our current ratio is 60% of male to 40% of female employees. We are a very diverse group, with employees from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. We just need people from South America and Antarctica to complete the world map.

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 push for diversity by doing my best at every task I handle, to show that my skills are not limited by my gender. I treat everyone around me equally, regardless of gender or nationality, which is the way I expect to be treated in return. I am not involved in any group or council since I do not know of any but I do attend women empowerment talks, where many women share their experiences and discuss ideas on how to grow personally and professionally.

What advice would you give to a woman entering the GCC construction industry today?

To be patient and persistent. To be professional and supportive. To empower everyone around, especially other women.

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.

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