Fiona Harper

Fiona Harper from SELECT, the trade association for electricians in Scotland, on how she faced up to her detractors who believed the construction industry was not the place for a woman.

My first job after university was with a bank in their debt collection department.  It wasn’t for me. After a lot of applications I got a job by chance with Babcock Construction Ltd as an Industrial Relations Officer.

My dad worked for Babcocks and his secretary was typing my CV, when it was left on a photocopier by mistake. It was found and passed to the Personnel Director who happened to be looking for an Industrial Relations Officer for Torness Power Station.

From there I went to Diamond Power Specialty Ltd (a sister company of Babcock International) as their Personnel Manager.

Then to the National Joint Council for the Engineering Construction Industry, initially as a Field Officer, then Head of Field Operations and laterally as Assistant Director. I moved from the NJC to SELECT in 2006 as Head of Employment Affairs and The Secretary of the SJIB.

Highlight the biggest projects you have been involved in

My first job in engineering construction was based at Torness Power Station whilst it was being built. There I dealt with industrial relations issues and Trade Union shop stewards.

After that – when I was with the NJC – I dealt with industrial relations issues at a regional and national level – again working with contractors and trade unions officers. I was involved with many projects throughout the UK including BP (now INEOS) Grangemouth, Sellafield, Sizewell B Power Station, projects for TOTAL, Mobil Oil, Shell at St Fergus near Peterhead and many more.

Where would you like to be in future?

My job at SELECT has grown with me. When I arrived, and as my job title indicates, I was employed to manage and deliver Employment Affairs on behalf of SELECT as well as run the SJIB (a partnership of employers with unite the union). Now I do that as well as internal Human Resources for SELECT and recently I was given responsibility for leading Strategic Skills & Qualifications portfolio for the electrotechnical sector in Scotland.

I am 58 and have had a fantastically interesting career. I have met a whole host of wonderful, interesting and passionate people along the way. I feel there is more I can do, and more I can offer. Of course, I would like recognition and promotion but, there is plenty to achieve with SELECT and it will take a while to get it right and I like to get things right.

What are your thoughts on your sector in terms of the number of females working in general and in higher positions?

The number of women in electrical contracting could and should be better.  It has improved since I first started but there is a long way to go.  There are many wives and partners who support their male partners in their business – they are in senior positions, but it is all taken for granted.  What’s more, there is no reason why they couldn’t also be the electrician?  In this day and age, there should be no barriers.

Could more be done to encourage women into construction?

Yes. The culture needs to change. Construction is a tough gig but there are as many strong (tough) women out there as men. We should live in a meritocracy. We need to open people’s minds and show them how exciting and creative the construction industry is.

We need to improve the image of construction and make it attractive to young girls, their families and their teachers. We need to get young people thinking about exciting, varied opportunities rather than hard hats and high-vis jackets. Women need flexible working packages so that they can blend their work life with their home life.

What has your employer and / or previous employers done to facilitate this?

From the very start of my career, I have had my detractors. There were people who I didn’t even know, yet had views on my ability to do my job. All of them believed the construction industry was not the place for a woman. However, each and every one of my employers has had faith in me and has given me the chance to prove my worth. I don’t think I have let any of them down and, because of that, I have either been recommended or head hunted for all of my positions since joining Babcocks.

Catch up with the rest of Scottish Construction Now’s International Women’s Day feature here.