ACS Physical Risk Control Ltd director, Emma Willey, has come a very long way from her first experience of the construction industry in 1992 where she turned up to take asbestos samples in an office block wearing the obligatory heels, pencil skirt and earrings expected of an office worker.
The emergency phone call had explicitly asked that she be discreet as there were ongoing refurbishment works and the well known insurance provider didn’t want to cause panic by having the word ‘asbestos’ bandied about the office. In reality, the office block was being completely refurbished, there were only two administrators on site and they were in a portacabin.
The rest of the site had some 200 male construction workers all downing tools and walking off because of the rumour of asbestos disturbed during their works. Emma gritted her teeth, took off her earrings, rolled up her sleeves and then climbed the scaffolding to get on with the works necessary.
Emma said: “The whole site was depending on me to get the work done. Whilst there was a great deal of teasing about the company sending a ‘lassie’, once I rolled up my sleeves and showed I had the guts to do the job necessary to get construction works re-started, everyone stepped up and pitched in.”
All 200 construction workers were back on site by the start of the next shift and Emma learned some important lessons that day that she still adheres to today.
She added: “Since then, I’ve been on plenty of sites as the only female and had to prove my abilities many times over, it still happens but I don’t really notice it these days. I’ve crawled under hospital ducts inspecting pipework. I’ve worked in nuclear submarine bases. I’ve worked in factories and I’ve also worked in office settings. I’m confident in my experience and knowledge. Equal pay and sexual harassment have always been issues I’ve had to combat and I think that women who succeed in this industry have to be quick learners who know they will be required to demonstrate their abilities.
“I’ve trained plenty of women over the years and, whilst some are still in the industry, every one who has left construction did so because they were uncomfortable with the male dominance. For me, I’ve never seen myself as ‘unequal’ to the men I encounter, nor do I see the need for combat. I am different and I embrace these differences. That means that the vast majority of men I come across accept me, accept my role and soon don’t notice that they are dealing with a female.
“The single biggest issue that I still come across is physical strength, which is always noticed on construction sites. I accept that I am not as physically strong as my male counterparts and am willing to ask for help when I can’t shift a heavy load by myself. As a result of that I’m not seen as weak, but human. Ask for help, accept the help, then move on and do the job you are supposed to be doing.”
Asked if she’s proud of being a woman in construction and Emma smiles “Yes, I am. I’ve won awards for my work and this year the company celebrates 40 years of being in business, we’ve worked in 6 continents, we save around 150 lives in the UK every single year due to our research and expect to continue to do so for years to come. That’s enough to put a smile on any woman’s face.”
Emma Willey, MA from St Andrews University, Director of ACS Physical Risk Control Ltd., has been involved in the construction industry since 1992. Emma was awarded the Swansea Bay Woman of the Year award and Business Woman of the Year in 2006.
Catch up with the rest of Scottish Construction Now’s International Women’s Day feature here.