When the word ‘infrastructure’ is mentioned, the picture that often comes to mind is men working on construction sites. Although the number of women graduating with engineering degrees is increasing, very few women ultimately take up civil engineering as their career.
Why? In part because biases still exist when it comes to women working on infrastructure projects – we are still seen differently. This starts from university classrooms – and continues onto construction sites.
Too often, women don’t have the same opportunities as male colleagues to work in these places, due to the assumption that women either can’t or don’t want to work there – the entrenched stereotypes portray women as too fragile to or incapable of handling the long hours in hardship circumstances.
And although there are always risks associated with working in construction, women in particular are often portrayed as too vulnerable to be on construction sites. Employers sometimes use this stereotype to discourage women from working on these sites based on ‘safety concerns’ – even though both men and women face the same risks.
So how can these barriers be overcome? How can we not only get more women into largely male-dominated civil engineering field, but also ensure they stay and help inform the infrastructure being designed and implemented?
First of all, by encouraging more qualified women engineers to apply to work in these kinds of fields, we can fight the stereotype that women are unable or unwilling to work in difficult fields. United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) is an organization that encourages women to apply for infrastructure jobs, which includes some of the world’s most challenging environments.
“At UNOPS, we put gender equality at the centre of all our work and as of today more than a quarter of UNOPS engineers are women! Through our mandate in infrastructure and procurement, our projects have huge potential to create new opportunities for women and girls.
As a top priority our project managers ensure men and women doing the same type of work receive the same type of contract and are paid the same amount of money, as well as make it clear to everyone that we operate based on gender equality.
Often on construction sites, women don’t feel comfortable reporting inappropriate behaviour. In all UNOPS projects around the world and in Ukraine, we foster an open environment on every project site – to ensure that every woman working there feels comfortable to come forward with issues and be confident that these issues will be addressed.” – says Irina Sahakyan-Vetter, UNOPS Ukraine Country Director.
Two female engineers working in PRAVO Police project funded by European Union and implemented by UNOPS with the support of the European Union Advisory Mission Ukraine were actively working on the refurbishment of 20 police stations in line with European standards over the last 2.5 years. The buildings now have large transparent windows and doors, spacious waiting rooms, child facilities etc.
The project supports the development of an efficient law enforcement system in Ukraine, guided by the principles of human rights protection and rule of law. It aims to reform law enforcement in Ukraine in line with European and international standards.
The project engages with the National Police of Ukraine and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine in areas such as counteracting organised crime and cybercrime, ensuring public order, criminal investigations etc.
Now the “PRAVO Police” is aiming at even more ambitious targets in the rule of law sphere.
The project will soon implement refurbishments at more police stations. They will be provided with special-purpose vehicles and radio stations, protective gear, video recording equipment and forensic tools as well as IT solutions bringing their operations in compliance with EU law enforcement standards. The implementation of the “Custody Records” system is another major step: it ensures that all actions by visitors and police officers are recorded and can be traced back if necessary.
The UNOPS Project employs two female engineers, Viktoriia SEKRETNA (Kharkiv) and Olena KUCHERUK (Lviv). On the eve of the International Women in Engineering Day celebrated on 23 June, we discussed the peculiarities of work in their field, their achievements, and the way they find common ground with men in construction and the police.
I am a civil engineer, a candidate of technical sciences. I have been working in construction for 17 years. I have been employed by UNOPS for over two years now. Our projects are aimed at supporting development of the police. Over my 2.5 years with UNOPS I have overseen seven projects in different towns around the Kharkiv oblast.
My role comes down to helping the police refurbish their stations in different locations. Originally, the stations were in dire shape and desperately needed renovation. We developed a concept with a stress on accessibility and openness and used it to improve the situation. The concept entails practical changes, such as removing barred elements, installing large windows, transparent doors, wheelchair ramps, replanning the reception area, establishing child zones, waiting rooms etc. We also ensure that visitor lavatories are accessible.
I work in the Infrastructure unit, in my capacity as the project engineer I control design and construction activities. First, we evaluate police stations to see what changes can be implemented. Once a contractor is selected, we move on to refurbishment works. We work on the building envelope, the engineering networks, and we focus much of our attention on accessibility, making sure all of the community members can use the services.
What falls within your sphere of responsibility?
I manage the technical side of the action and oversee our contractors’ work: I need to make sure that everything is in line with the original design, that our request is met, that the requirements of our donor and the National Police are fulfilled, and that construction norms are observed. Health and safety measures are of paramount importance in our work. We follow relevant international best practices. We also have an internal quality assurance system along with safety requirements for all sites. After we finish working, the buildings become open and transparent, inviting everyone to come in.
Are you affected by gender stereotypes? How do men react to having a female construction manager?
When men first have to deal with a female engineer, especially if she is making requests, coordinating, checking the scope of work, its quality, safety compliance and is pointing out issues, they seem to be shocked. At first, they are confused and find it difficult to understand why I am wearing the engineer’s gear and giving out orders. However, once we get down to the actual work, they start seeing me as an engineer carrying out my duties. I always find a way to get my message across: I usually try to communicate with the senior staff, and if they fail to deliver the idea to their subordinates, I take it upon myself to go on site and explain what I mean. I believe I need to give more attention to detail in my work, so that colleagues and subordinates see that I am competent.
This is currently my second project. We have finished working on twenty police stations, seven of those, in the Lviv oblast, were refurbished under my supervision. I am now preparing to work on another three, one each in the Lviv, Chernivtsi and Khmelnytskyi oblasts.
I find it crucial that this project incorporates a focus on accessibility for people with disabilities. We have relevant standards approved by the National Police, and it is through construction and infrastructure that we are trying to restore trust between the police and local communities.
Have you had any feedback on your work from visitors or police officers?
Police officers have reached out to thank us, as they find their new environments much more convenient.
Is developing the technology to record everything happening at the police station part of your job, too?
This is one of the activities, and the relevant designs have already been generated: these concern rooms for meetings with lawyers, detention facilities etc. They will all be equipped with video cameras that continuously record everything happening at the premises. This is done to prevent illegal actions both by the police officers and the visitors or detainees.
How do men treat a woman in construction?
They do not usually voice any comments, but you can see the mistrust in their eyes: they tend to be wary at first, surprised I would say, but this is easily forgotten as the work goes on, when everything goes well. The work we do goes to prove we deserve the job. I have been working at UNOPS for 2.5 years, and I have only seen one woman in the project apart from Viktoriia – she was a plasterer. I remember we also had a female foreman in Kyiv. It is true that very few women work in construction.
Women tend to choose office-based jobs that do not involve being present on the construction site. Plus, a female engineer’s salary across the country is lower than that of a male engineer. You either accept the rules of the game as they are or not. I used to work at a design institute in Cherkasy, and I used to have thoughts about quitting altogether. Then I discovered new horizons, found this job, and moved to Lviv. Construction has many opportunities to offer. UNOPS is great in that it not only provides equal working conditions regardless of gender, but also supports me in terms of developing further and establishing myself as an expert in construction.
What issues have you come across when working with personnel? It is said that technically launching a project is one thing, while teaching people new ways of working is much more difficult.
I would say Ukraine’s problem is that we lack a modern structure and culture of construction. Our ways are outdated. We face deep issues when it comes to health and safety on construction sites. Contractors, customers and even some public officials seem to have a rather light-hearted approach to safety requirements. We represent an international organisation and demand that all rules should be strictly observed. Unfortunately, we do run into resistance and a lack of understanding. Still, quality assurance and safety are key to our work.
Do people listen to you?
A UNOPS engineer has many tools at their disposal. We have the right to pause construction if safety requirements are being violated. This is something I am serious about, as I have had to see a team member of mine buried after he fell in an elevator shaft at a high-rise construction site. The official figures on injuries and deaths do not paint the full picture. This is a comprehensive issue in all post-Soviet countries. I am happy that we have the chance to follow a different path.
Oksana MYKOLIUK, “Den” (“Day”), photos provided by UNOPS