The only man in the room…

What does the future hold for women in the built environment, how are things changing, and what’s it like being the only man in a construction team? Martin shares his thoughts based on recent experience…


At a recent project team meeting I made a chance remark.

The project we were running was the first in my entire working life where the majority of key roles were carried out by women. It is not exclusively an all-women team, but it is the first time I have regularly found myself the only man present in team meetings.

During the conversation that followed, I was surprised to be told that mine wasn’t an uncommon experience. The project team challenged me to draft a piece about women working in construction. Critically, to draft it from my perspective as a male project manager with more than 40 years’ experience in this traditionally male-dominated industry.

History and Facts

So first things first, let’s get the facts out of the way. The built environment has a history of not only being male-dominated, but of actively making women feel unwelcome. Lots is being done to improve things. There are campaigns to encourage girls and women into these professions, (our own Emily Churchill is a mentor with The Girl’s Network).  There are industry initiatives like Part W, and Women in Property that do a brilliant job of highlighting women’s historically overlooked achievements.

More broadly, we’ve seen changes to employment and discrimination laws, improvements to parental leave and flexible working, and gender pay gap reporting. All these make a positive difference. But there’s still a long way to go before we achieve gender equality. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2022 construction still employed the lowest percentage of women of any UK industry at 14% (this Construction Management article gives a good breakdown).

I don’t want to turn this into a PhD piece, but rather a personal note on my experience of how things are changing for my newsletter audience. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and experiences too.

How did it feel to be in the minority?

All my working life there have been women in construction teams. At Ashfold we have a 50% gender split. Lots of you have probably heard me say that I find teams where a senior figure is a woman have a different project culture. Not always positive, but different.

Working in California in the 1990s was a case in point. Two of the senior structural engineers were women. The (mostly male) site teams didn’t know what to make of being told how to build by a woman, even though they were the registered engineers in the room. I learnt a lot from this – my own leadership style is to collaborate and build relationships. I find this is easier to achieve when there are fewer testosterone-fuelled men present. But I must admit, being the only man in the room did feel odd.

Leading an all-female team also made me conscious of how sexist the workplace humour I’m used to can be – my one liners don’t always land! (To be serious for a moment, it’s well documented that workplace ‘banter’ often paves the way for more serious bullying and discrimination in every industry – this Financial Times article offers a useful insight.)

Did it make a difference to the way in which I behaved?

In all-women meetings (aside from yours truly) I have noticed that everyone’s view is listened to, even if the consensus is that some views are irrelevant. And I’ve often been told to listen! I have a tendency (some might say an awful habit) of not letting people finish what they are saying. Most of the time this can be recognised as my enthusiasm boiling over. But I’m realising now that it’s a common trait of male professionals. In fact – somewhat ironically – it’s often me that reminds male colleagues that God gave us two ears but only one mouth for a reason.

There’s definitely a different social etiquette with all-women teams. For example everyone has a personal connection with each other away from the project, like going running together. I also noticed women offer each other positive personal compliments, whereas men often open with quite a derogatory ‘another disaster at the barber’s’-type comment. Again – definitely not a winner in an all-women setting!

How did a predominantly female team change the project?

The project has undoubtedly been managed differently. More consensus building: more listening and willingness to share, collaborate and support. On the flip side, people (of either sex) who didn’t fulfil their role professionally were more often held to account.

Whether or not it changed the project outcome itself is difficult to answer. We will never know if a predominantly male team would have come to different conclusions. What I do know is that each male member of the team noticed something different about this team. Some may argue it’s down to personalities not gender, but I noticed that some ideas remained alive even if at first the [male] advice was to drop the idea.

What did I learn from the experience?

This was quite a challenging project; both the nature of the project itself, and being witness to the extra challenges women in leadership still face. From a practical viewpoint, we developed several new working processes that we will be able to apply to new projects. These include a budget forecast spreadsheet, an invoice tracker and an updated monthly report format.

Were these challenges and innovations a result of a mostly women team? Possibly.

As I pointed out, this dynamic was unique in my experience. So the learning may be that women working in the built environment are taking the opportunity to challenge accepted norms. They are more likely to ask the question: why? They are also more likely not to accept the answer, ‘because we have always done it that way’.

So are these serious issues that our industry needs to address?

I would say yes.

When I joined Arup as a graduate in 1982, the graduate intake was about 10% women. The women in that cohort are now beginning to reach retirement age. Indeed, some have reached very senior positions on projects, and to some extent on company leadership teams. By contrast, this year’s Arup graduate cohort will have a much more even gender split. This is thanks to the hard work of all the people (let’s face it, mostly women) before them who fought to make that a possibility.

As long as we all keep working to make it happen, (like I said at the beginning, there’s still a lot to be done), it’s likely that senior management teams will become more equal in the future. Perhaps, some will become dominated by women. In my experience of working in all-male teams, all-female teams and teams with a more balanced gender split, there’s still a big difference in working relationships, language, (even humour!) between my male and female colleagues.


The old-school sexist attitudes I experienced in the ’80s are still around. They just make it harder for all of us to do our jobs well.

An even gender split can only be a good thing for the industry and something that will lead to genuine improvement in how we design, build and operate our buildings for everyone that uses them.