Building and civil engineering – jobs for the boys?
The building and civil engineering (“BCE”) sector is both fascinating and tough, from design to construction to decommissioning. And it’s the same for both men and women, says Albane Levieux – Special Projects and Infrastructure Development Director at Assystem and a real workaholic. With over 25 years’ experience in the sector, Albane is still as enthusiastic as when she first started out, and she’s just as committed to standing up for her beliefs. In an environment that’s still male dominated, she’s a campaigner for equal career opportunities. Read on to find out more.
Only 12% of workers in the BCE sector are women. It’s a low figure but it is rising, having gone from just 8% in the early nineties. That was when Albane Levieux began her career in the building industry, after being taken on by a large construction works company.
Having graduated in Civil Engineering and Urban Planning from INSA Lyon, Albane put on her boots and hard-hat right away, going straight out to the front-line “When I was about 25, I was Works Co-ordinator for a building project, heading up a team of 150 people, nearly all men and of all nationalities”, she explains. “I have very good memories of that time, both professionally and personally. I learnt a lot. No one made fun of me and no-one questioned my ability to do my job. Yes, building sites are a tough environment. And yes, there are often raised voices. But being a woman is not a handicap. You just need to do your job well.”
This initial experience taught Albane a collaborative management approach, gave her a good grasp of the challenges entailed in completing a project, and inspired her to get involved more upstream, right from the design phase. In 2001, on returning to work after four months’ maternity leave, she found her company in financial difficulties. So she and a colleague, Christophe Fournier, launched a new company that they called BATIR. Their company specialised in nuclear civil engineering – a sector that both Albane and Christophe knew like the back of their hands – as well as technical synthesis and subsequently BIM, their company grew rapidly. “For 15 years, I felt like Christophe’s alter-ego. Actually, I think he’s much more of a feminist than a lot of women”, she says. “However, it was sometimes difficult with certain clients. It was as if some of them felt awkward working with me. When that happened, I asked Christophe to take over. And sometimes it was the opposite. In practice, it doesn’t really matter. I think the important thing is for men and women to work together to get rid of pre-conceptions and change working habits. From an operations point of view and in terms of results, it’s highly effective!”
Working with men rather than against them
Speaking without bitterness but not acceptingly, Albane explains that in the course of her career and even now, it can be tricky for a man with a high-powered job to work with his female alter-ego. And it’s often not even a conscious thing. “We live in a period when so much is being turned upside down – thousands of years of history. So we need to understand. I’ve said it often, but I’ll say it again, although the word feminism is sometimes over-used, it still means something, and for me it means working with men rather than against them. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for one of the most important statements in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to become reality, i.e. ‘All human beings are born free and equal’. All that’s being asked is for this precept to apply to women, who make up half of humankind. Nothing more, nothing less”.
In Albane’s view, the main problem isn’t pay inequality, which she’s never suffered herself, but unequal career opportunities.
“I don’t think the BCE industry is more macho than any other sector or more difficult for a woman to work in. But as in any sector that includes technical professions, we sometimes have to justify why we’re in our job. All too often, when we take up a new post, we have to waste time proving that we have the skills to be able to express ourselves and make effective decisions and choices. When you add in maternity, a woman’s path to a particular job is often longer and more obstacle-ridden than a man’s. And that’s not how it should be.”
For Albane, the key point is that women and men have complementary skills. In the same way as cultural diversity and different personalities and views, gender diversity is good for business. “Managers today have an extremely important role to play in breaking the glass ceiling. Because the way events are interpreted depends on their ecosystem. A decision by a committee wholly, or almost wholly, made up of men, will most likely be taken in good faith without any ulterior motive. But the way that decision is interpreted depends on the surrounding environment”, she explains.
When will there be more women mentors?
Now, Albane is keen to move ahead and inspire future generations to work in a profession and an industry she loves. At 48, she’s still as passionate about her job as when she first started. Since BATIR was acquired by Assystem in 2016, Albane has taken on new responsibilities, becoming Special Projects and Infrastructure Development Director. In her new role, she loves working in collaboration with others and seeing major projects come to fruition, especially “in industries that are at the cutting edge of technology and for large-scale public infrastructure. Construction is somehow ancestral. We are literally creating places for living, working and communicating. There’s a real sense of purpose about the sector”, she states.
So Albane recommends that anyone interested in the BCE sector – both men and women – should go for it. To help women find their legitimate place, not only in this sector but in the engineering industry as a whole, she recommends they join the networks that are sprouting everywhere today, both women-only and mixed. “All of the men in these networks, especially those with high-level posts, will tell you that they had mentors. I had mentors too – men who believed in me and have supported me throughout my career. But I didn’t have any women role models. I think that the sharing and exchange aspects of these new networks are motivating and inspiring, and at the end of the day, necessary to help current and future generations grow.”