Women in Construction: WSP’s Reem Madkour

“I am proud of every positive contribution I make to strengthen the image of women in the industry”

“Engineering and construction are still very much male-dominated industries and like all other professions that are typically male-dominated, I believe the greatest barrier is perception…”

As part of the Women in Construction series, WSP’s Reem Madkour about her influencers, career and gender diversity in the construction industry…

What was the inspiration for 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?

I graduated from the University of Miami, Florida with a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering and a Minor in studio arts. I picked an engineering degree because I loved the challenge of it and was fascinated to learn about our built environment and all the design considerations that go into everyday things that we take for granted. My first job was with a consulting firm in Boston, USA, where I was introduced to façade engineering and was given the opportunity to spend half of my time on construction sites and half my time working with the team at the office solving any issues identified on site. The exposure to both engineering and construction offered me an experience greater than the sum of its parts. Understanding the technical and engineering side of construction made me more astute to the quality of work on site, while understanding the practical side of engineering made me a better designer.

Tell us about your career, mentioning key milestones.

The four years I worked in Boston were focused predominantly on the historical restoration of existing buildings in a cold climate. By my second year as a consultant, and with the guidance of project managers who consistently pushed me out of my comfort zone, I was managing a lot of my own projects and had co-authored my first technical article. Moving to Dubai, I found I was able to quickly translate my technical expertise to a completely different industry building modern skyscrapers in a hot and humid climate. I consider my ability to adapt to a wide spectrum of environments my biggest achievement. During my four years of experience in Boston, I earned the opportunity to join the WSP Middle East Façade Engineering team as a senior consultant – a position that typically requires at least five years of experience. In my two years with WSP, I have used my varied experiences and exposure to successfully navigate a market that is diverse; socially, technically, and commercially.

Diversity in the construction industry is important because of the value women can bring to clients, employers and projects. What opportunity do you see in the industry and what has been your proudest moment?

My mark in the industry cannot be reduced to a single moment. The value I bring to my team is my ability to consistently deliver projects to a high standard. I consider my work to be an extension of who I am as a person and not just a checklist of tasks to finish by the end of the week. In that regard, I strive to ensure that anything I put my name on is something I can be proud of. This has paid off on several occasions when project directors have relayed positive feedback they have received from major clients, singling me out for the role I played to successfully coordinate and efficiently deliver a project. Whether it is providing technical expertise in team meetings, finding creative solutions to design problems, improving our way of business, or simply keeping a client happy – I am proud of every positive contribution I make to strengthen the image of women in the industry and solidify our place at the table.

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

Engineering and construction are still very much male-dominated industries and like all other professions that are typically male-dominated, I believe the greatest barrier is perception. There are certain age-old (and outdated) biases associated with women that can hinder a woman being considered for a job or leadership position. In this digital age, my first correspondence with suppliers and contractors is often by email and I am sometimes mistakenly referred to as ‘Mr. Reem’. This is a great example of the assumptions people in the industry make of who they consider an ‘Engineer’. In these situations, I love to continue email correspondence as Mr. Reem and see the look of surprise the first time we meet in person, and they realise that the engineer they were speaking with all along is a woman.

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 diversity in the GCC construction sector is increasing and that this upward trend is a result of education and awareness. Women are branching out and becoming more empowered and as those women become the role models for new generations, I expect to see a continued rise of women in engineering.

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?

I have experienced gender bias in both the US and here in the UAE. As an Arab woman, I can personally identify the cultural influences that have made some hurdles in the GCC harder to overcome but I am also extremely impressed and pleased to see that these issues are at the forefront of conversation, and that big changes are happening for women in the region.

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

I am very fortunate to have had supportive employers and managers throughout my career. I have never found myself in a position where I felt discriminated against and did not feel empowered enough to stand up for myself. I think the best tool an employer can give an employee is the autonomy and support to speak up without fear of consequence.

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

No, I truly believe WSP fosters an environment wherein professional growth is encouraged irrespective of gender, and where a space to highlight and address issues of gender equality has been specifically created.

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

I am currently a member of the Women in Professional Services (WIPS) group – an initiative driven by the WSP leadership team and women in the company, which encourages conversations about women in the workplace. WSP has launched social media campaigns that support gender diversity and help raise the profiles of female employees in our business, such as the #WomenofWSP and #engineeredHERway. Furthermore, I was recently nominated to be a member of WSP’s Taskforce, a business-wide network of emerging professionals and this year five out of 10 members are women.

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

You can have a much more profound impact on the perception of professional women here in the GCC than perhaps anywhere else in the world. Do good work and the rest will follow. Be empowered to start a conversation if you notice acts of bias.

Please share any interesting stats/reports you’ve come across with regards to diversity in the construction sector.

I listen to a podcast called Hidden Brain which “uses science and storytelling to reveal unconscious patterns that drive human behavior”. A recent episode featured the work of Dr. Madeline Heilman, a psychology professor at New York University, who conducted several scientific experiments measuring gender stereotypes. The results of her experiments unveiled the following: “When we present women and men with exactly the same credentials, qualifications and backgrounds for a job that is traditionally male – held by men in our culture, thought to require male attributes – we consistently find that the woman is seen as more incompetent than the man.” Another study by Dr. Heilman revealed “When a person was presented as a very high-power person who was very ambitious, we found that the person was seen as much more unlikeable when it was a woman than when it was a man.”

This is a catch-22 situation that professional woman often find themselves in – to be seen as incompetent or unlikeable. The problem is that these biases are not just held by men, they’re also held by many women against other women. It’s exciting to witness society challenge these perceptions on deeper levels.

To support the drive towards gender balance in the industry, Middle East Consultant and 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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