Women in construction: Helen J Finlay

by | Aug 9, 2021

Equal Measures: An insight into a career in construction from a woman’s point of view

Helen J Finlay is a Senior Technical Manager with Cairn Homes PLC. She has worked in the industry for 18 years

I qualified as an architect from DIT Bolton Street (now TU) in 2003 and my first years were spent working on the consultant side of the table in design, until I moved across to work for the developer St. James, a division of the Berkeley Group, in early 2013 while based in London. My first proper role in Dublin as a graduate architect saw me cut my teeth on a variety of projects of varying scales, the most satisfying was a full house refurbishment which took 18 months and I managed this from start to finish myself.

I’ve got to where I am today with lots of hard work, many all-nighters and long day. And with lots of grit and determination. Some projects may never leave the drawing board on the consultancy side, which can be very frustrating, but my time as an architect in London took me on site with a very large city centre regeneration in Doha, Qatar, and I was lucky with opportunities which came my way. I also think it’s important not to hold back – just throw yourself in the deep end sometimes, it’s good to get out of your comfort zone and stretch yourself. You will genuinely learn more that way.

I think a passion for design and good quality spaces people will call their home is what drives me, a lot of my colleagues and associates. Design becomes part of your DNA when you train to become an architect. Seeing a project develop from a blank field to eventually a high quality housing scheme is so rewarding and also fascinating, and there are many twists and turns along the road to a successful end result.

Seeing people move in and make the space their own gives me the best sense of achievement in my career and makes all the hard work worthwhile. Every project brings it’s own set of challenges. Each project team is different and has it’s own dynamic.

In a traditionally male-dominated industry it can take some time to gain respect from your colleagues and the supply chain. But be confident that you can shake things up, don’t be afraid to question something if you have a better alternative but make sure your ideas are well thought out, present them with confidence, and over time, success speaks for itself. Just go for it. There is a huge variety of roles out there in so many facets of the industry and if you are given the opportunity to join a good company creating excellent places for people to live, don’t say no to it.

Most surprising thing you’ve heard in your career?
During a meeting I was once asked by a much more senior colleague to make everyone tea as I was the only woman in the room. I had to very calmly reply no I couldn’t as I was attending the meeting – he never asked me again.

It can be easy to get insecure when you are the only woman at the table, but remind yourself that you’ve made it this far for a reason. At Cairn Homes we are taking part in a NEIC programme of flash mentoring with Transition year students and this should encourage the next generation of women to consider the many varied careers that construction can offer. Giving something back by volunteering to mentor a student is really enjoyable and worthwhile, and I’d encourage others to join if they can.

The handover and completion of a project is always a great moment, when years of hard work have come to fruition for a happy client and purchasers. We completed a block of units in London three months early just before I took a break on some maternity leave and I was really proud of all the team who worked so hard to bring it over the line. Cairn has women in all levels of roles across the company and there is good visibility and inclusivity. Secondly, more focus needs to be given to flexibility and encouraging women who have children to be able to retain their role, and also find they are on a level playing field in terms of promotions and progression.

More and more companies are doing more to support both parents, but paid maternity and paternity leave in my mind is only a good thing when it comes to your employees. The biggest myth about construction is that ‘It’s not a career for women’. I have often heard this while visiting schools to do career guidance talks. It can be really hard to break down those barriers people feel are there in terms of considering a role in construction as a woman.

I recently read a report stating that the pandemic has set back gender equality on company boards by as much as four years, suggesting that parity between male and female members might not be achieved until 2036. In the report on publicly listed companies in the UK , the study also found that men still account for nearly 85 per cent of all executives on company main boards. We need more women at this level, how can you aspire to a position if you have no-one as a role model who is already there?

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