Breaking Down the Barriers to Digital Transformation in Construction

women in construction world series

As part of the Women in Construction World Series, we teamed up with Ivana Tudja, BIM and Digital Engineering Lead for MACE and Dr Karen Blay, a Lecturer in Digital Construction and Quantity Surveying at Loughborough University to discuss the opportunities digital transformation offers women in the construction industry.

How can we break down barriers to digital transformation in construction?

Ivana Tudja, Digital Engineering Lead for MACE, started her career specialising in the use of Autodesk products as a qualified architect and Autodesk Instructor / ATC Manager. To kick off her session, she posed the question: how can construction change? As one of the least digitalised sectors in the world, Ivana believes there’s a common misconception in the industry – rather than it being a sector that doesn’t want to change, it just doesn’t know how to.

Whilst working with so many technically minded people who are solving some of the most challenging engineering problems, she found it hard to believe that they can’t use technology – it looked more like a different, more practical approach is needed.

Ivana believes the key to transforming the way the sector works digitally is to accept and embrace the changes technology can offer at speed. Solutions we may have identified three years ago have the potential to change rapidly and, as technology changes at pace, construction professionals need to have a flexible and agile approach to their own projects that harness data and technology.

The vision of incorporating digital technologies into our projects needs to be identified early in the tender stage rather than as an additional add-on. This is really important from a cost aspect, but also provides you with great opportunities if you have an open mind and are willing to embrace change in technology as the new projects start coming up.

Finding solutions that are really easy to use are another important aspect to breaking down the barriers to digital transformation. Supporting our people on sites with the right technology is vital but we should always put ourselves in other people’s shoes – ensuring the tools and systems introduced on sites are simple and straightforward to use.

Ivana’s top tips for introducing digital technologies into construction projects are:

  1. Have a vision – don’t just think about how things are done but think about how you’d like to see things work in the future. Fixed mindset will just limit you in making a progress.
  2. Do your research – exploring new technologies in the market is important as technology moves at speed. Continually keeping up to date with products and how they are evolving can help you when it comes to exploring solutions to meet the outcomes you need.
  3. Test your product – whilst technology has the power to solve some of the biggest issues facing the construction industry, it’s important to always test how the product can work for you and ensure it’s doing everything required, and in a user-friendly way. It’s also important not to lose touch with technology so, regardless of your seniority, you should always make sure you stay relevant and understand the power technology can offer you and your teams.
  4. Know your colleagues – understanding who will be using digital technologies, and how, is also really important. Structured training as well as clear communication on the experience of using the tools needs to continue after a new technology is introduced to help continually and improve productivity. Find your digital partners who are involved in day-to-day operations and can support their colleagues. By being available when they come across challenges, you can make sure things run smoothly and any obstacles are tackled immediately.
  5. Be a rebel – don’t be afraid to think outside the box and do things differently! For a sector that hasn’t changed a whole lot, it might be tough to get some of your ideas approved so be bold. Don’t be afraid of setbacks, and if you truly believe you’ve found a solution to some of the biggest problems, then persistence is key.

Ivana believes having early access to the best technology is the differentiator in helping construction firms, and their employees to stay relevant.  

How we can attract and retain women in construction through digitisation?

Dr Karen Blay, a Lecturer in Digital Construction and Quantity Surveying at Loughborough University, believes we can attract and retain women in construction through digitisation. For Karen, there’s much more that needs to be done to tackle the leaky pipe concept that exists in the industry today.

The leaky pipe concept focuses on the blockers preventing women from joining the construction industry and offers insight into the environment that leads to high turnover of female employees. Looking at how the industry is pitched to young women; Karen thinks the heavy focus on manual labour and the absence of strong campaigns and positive outreach to appeal to schoolgirls at secondary education levels.

Although huge progress has been made to raise the profile of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, Karen believes the focus still remains on the discipline of engineering and doesn’t embrace the wider opportunities which the construction sector can offer women. For students in schools, the lack of knowledge of the construction discipline as a whole is also fuelled by the absence of early mentorship programmes – not enough is being done to teach children and young people what the construction industry can offer them.

Focusing on the retention of females working in the industry, Karen explored the challenges they face in her interactive session. These include high workloads and long hours through presenteeism that is rife in the industry, to glass ceilings that hold many women back in their careers. But Karen believes the traditionally male dominated industry is showing signs of modernising which can help with both attracting and retaining women in careers in construction.

Learning from other sectors who previously struggled to attract women has been an important step forward in improving the representation of women in the construction industry. For Karen, this is linked to the role inclusive recruitment has played in helping increase the gender diversity as well as a zero-tolerance approach to non-inclusive cultures that many construction companies have embraced.

Supporting flexible working practices, tackling pay inequalities and cultural change initiatives has helped many firms improve their diversity. Karen believes that digital technology is increasingly playing an important role in construction as a whole, providing an opportunity to change the outdated image and stereotypes that may exist inside and outside of the industry today.

Digitalisation facilitates flexible and remote working and removes any invisible biases that may exist, as the focus is shifted towards outcomes delivered. Working remotely as a result of Covid-19 has helped create a more equal and level playing field for many employees within the sector and by working on virtual teams women are feeling more supported and included, while also getting the opportunity to better balance their personal and professional commitments more effectively.

Karen shared some examples of how other traditionally male sectors are responding to the lack of gender diversity and shared their strategies to attract and retain more female colleagues. The oil and gas sector realised that flexible working would be key to attracting more women into roles and this resulted in some organisations embracing digitally enabled flexible working practices, which has created additional opportunities and improved diversity through roles that focus more on providing softer skills.

Maersk, a shipping and logistics company, sought to eliminate gender bias that existed in their recruitment practices by partnering with a game studio to develop an online game for hiring managers to learn more about unconscious bias. They assessed the language they used in their job adverts to assess where this was alienating women from applying for roles and made adjustments as needed.

For Karen, technology can not only provide a more accessible and level playing field for women working in construction through flexible working practices, but it can also provide solutions to unconscious bias that exist when casting the net in recruitment. To retain women in the sector, company culture and more open and inclusive working practices remain the most important element supported by using digital technology tools to analyse interaction with an organisation.

Amanda Fennell

Amanda Fennell is Director of EMEA Marketing in Autodesk Construction Solutions and Autodesk Ireland Site Lead. She has over 20 year’s marketing experience in IT, including working with some leading cloud organisations. Amanda holds an MA in Communications and Cultural Studies from DCU and is based in Autodesk’s European headquarters in Dublin.