After studying architecture, Anna Chambers saw a different route into construction with Perceptive Communicators, a firm with extensive experience of raising the profile of clients in the industry.
Tell me a bit about your career, and how you got to be where you are today?
When I was at school I didn’t have a clear idea what I wanted to do next – it was a straight toss-up between studying English or architecture – so I applied for both. When I got accepted into the Mackintosh School of Architecture, I was so delighted with the idea of going to Glasgow School of Art that I decided to take the architecture path.
Around halfway through my degree, I realised this wasn’t the career for me – unfortunately my fascination with buildings did not translate into a talent for designing them, and I struggled with what was an extremely demanding course – think survival of the fittest! However, I completed my degree and went on to work in an architect’s office for a year, while reconsidering my options.
I then went back to university to complete a postgraduate diploma in broadcast journalism. I was very lucky that a communications job came up immediately afterwards at the RIAS, and because of my background in architecture, they took a chance on a graduate with no communications experience. This was the first step into a career where I have been lucky enough to combine my love of writing with my passion for buildings.
A year later I got the job of assistant editor at the architecture magazine Prospect, which was a wonderful role that involved visiting and reviewing some of the most fascinating buildings, including being one of the first to see the inside of the new Scottish Parliament. Later on I went back to the architecture firm where I had previously worked, taking on a PR and marketing role across their five offices. I then spent some time within corporate communications at two local authorities where, amongst other things, I edited a magazine for council housing tenants.
Three years ago I joined a PR agency called Perceptive Communicators which specialises in construction, amongst other things. I now handle all aspects of communication for many construction clients, such as Henry Boot Developments on the new Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre, AS Homes and Construction Scotland Innovation Centre. Having a background in construction has been an obvious advantage, and I am very lucky to have been able to put both sides of my education and knowledge to good use throughout my career.
Have you faced any issues being a woman in construction?
When I read some accounts from other women in the industry, I think I must have been lucky as I have never experienced any issues at all. Perhaps it was a subconscious effect of growing up in the 1980s when the prime minister was a woman, but it never occurred to me that there was anything I could not do because I was a girl. Working in a predominantly male environment was never something that bothered me and I have very fond and positive memories of my time working in an architectural practice. However, this was before I had my children. There does seem to be a long-hours culture in architecture which perhaps does not lend itself well to being a working parent. As research shows that mothers still tend to take on the vast majority of caring responsibilities, perhaps this might go some way to explaining why so many women drop out of architecture.
Should more be done to encourage women into construction?
There is a skills shortage in construction just now, and also a huge gender imbalance. Perhaps if we could address the latter, we could help remedy the former. The difficulty lies in how we do this. Even areas of the sector such as architecture, which are managing to attract women in the first place (the gender split is fairly even in undergraduate architecture courses), are unfortunately losing them along the way. It’s unfortunate that so many talented people are taking their skills and training into other sectors.
A recent survey by design website Dezeen, of the 100 biggest architecture firms from around the world, revealed that only one in 10 senior positions are occupied by women. I think one of the main reasons for this is not so much a construction industry issue as a society-wide problem – men need to take on their fair share of childcare duties, such as accepting the shared parental leave that is now on offer to them, and should be encouraged to do so by both their employers and society. Until there is as much chance of a man being off work for a few months after the birth of their child as a woman, or of a dad rather than a mum leaving the office at 5pm to pick up the kids, then the gender imbalance in senior positions will unfortunately continue.
My current company is a fantastic example of how work-life balance can be done – our managing director and the longest-serving member of our team are both women with school age children, and thanks to flexible and remote working, they have managed to very successfully combine senior roles with raising a family.
Some of our construction clients are also doing some really great things in terms of encouraging a better gender balance, such as offering shared parental leave, flexible hours, working from home, childcare vouchers, leadership and graduate programmes and skills academies.
What career achievement are you most proud of?
As a young rookie journalist at Prospect in 2004, I got sent at short notice to Paris to interview a famous Japanese architect named Shigeru Ban, because my editor could no longer make it. In the architecture world, he is a pretty big deal, so I was both star-struck and terrified, especially as I was interviewing him via a translator. I will always remember him thanking me for being ‘one of the few journalists who had really done their homework’. This made me feel I could do a really good job even when I felt like a fish out of water, and that gave me confidence. From then on I’ve tried to always be well prepared, especially when taking on something new or a little bit scary.
Since then I can’t really pinpoint one achievement in particular, but nothing beats the feeling of getting great news coverage for a client. It never gets old!
Catch up with the rest of Scottish Construction Now’s International Women’s Day feature here.