Raising the profile

Features Posted 09/08/22
Sarra Hawes, director of Hawes Construction Group, wants to encourage more young women to join the construction industry

According to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, construction is one of the largest industries in the UK economy – employing 3.1 million people, which equates to over 9% of the workforce. Only around 14% of construction industry professionals, however, are women.

Construction has been male-dominated for centuries. This can largely be put down to sexism and deeply ingrained gender stereotypes. In fact, it is only since 1975 that the Equality Act permitted women to work freely within the industry. Sarra Hawes, director of Hawes Construction Group and chairperson of Constructing Excellence Sussex Club, believes that much more emphasis needs to be put on encouraging young women to start a career in construction.

Sarra herself joined the construction industry in 1988 as a management trainee with a large contractor. “A part of the process was to work in every department of the company so that you could then choose where you wanted to be,” says Sarra. “It was when I worked as a site engineer/assistant site manager that I knew I had found my place.”

I ask Sarra what drew her to that specific area. She explains: “I loved being outdoors and working with a team that changed regularly along with the location. I enjoyed seeing buildings come up out of the ground and I liked being involved in the intricacies of how the components go together and the challenges that go with it. I loved the variety of people I met along the journey, and I learned so much from each of them.”

Sarra recalls that when she first started in construction, there were no other women. “In the early years, I would share the welfare facilities with men, which was an experience! Occasionally there would be a female architect, and although this balance has changed dramatically over the years, there is still a lack of women on sites. I thoroughly enjoyed working with men, although I would occasionally meet someone who didn’t like taking direction from me and we would have to find a way of getting the job finished without too much confrontation.”

In 1992, Sarra met fellow site manager Bruce. The pair married and have been together ever since. Sarra had a career break to have children and then in 2013, the husband-and-wife team decided to set up Hawes Building Limited, now known as Hawes Construction Group.

Having worked in the construction industry for many years, Sarra and Bruce both identified a gap in the market to create a medium-sized builder with a large contractor’s experience. The company started with two employees and operated from a small room in the family home. This has since grown into a team of 22 employees, including 11 directly employed tradesmen, working from Hawes’ high street office in Polegate, East Sussex. Sarra oversees the accounts, general administration, HR, fleet of vehicles, training, business development and preconstruction elements of tenders.

Hawes Construction Group is a value-led contractor that works on both commercial and residential projects with budgets between £200k and £1.5 million. “We believe strongly in building relationships with clients, design teams, suppliers and subcontractors,” says Sarra. “We have been lucky to work in Sussex for the last few years. Our sweet spot is refurbishments as we are knowledgeable in strategic demolition, including temporary works, and have the direct trades in-house to cover all aspects of the work involved.”

The past year has been challenging for Hawes, but that hasn’t stopped Sarra, Bruce and the team. Business has been very quiet, but they have managed to keep their staff, raise their profile and widen their client base. “This has paid off as we are now busy working on a variety of projects for different clients,” says Sarra. “I’ve heard that there is a bit of boom period at the moment, which we are feeling here. However, it is still price-driven. There is also a noticeable shortage of skilled tradespeople and professionals. Materials are sometimes in short supply and the prices are still rising for some, which, in some cases, can affect project timings and lead to delays.”

Sarra is very passionate about the construction sector and its future. She wants to see more women on construction sites and believes the best way of inspiring this is by getting more young women who are already in the industry to go into schools and colleges to show students what they are doing and talk about their journeys. “Although I regularly go into schools and talk, I am a grey-haired older woman and they might sometimes struggle to relate to what I do and my career journey. I know GoConstruct is very active in promoting young people – especially young women.”

On top of heading up Hawes Construction Group, Sarra works with Constructing Excellence Sussex Club, chairing a committee of twelve Sussex-based members who come from various disciplines in construction. Constructing Excellence is a national framework of local committees which are set up to promote knowledge sharing and best practice in the construction industry. “We believe that the key is collaboration between the design team, contractors and supply chain,” explains Sarra. “We aim to help spark innovation in the industry, connect like-minded construction professionals and create opportunities to educate and provide insight about industry practices.” As well as arranging site visits to any projects of interest in the local area, members vote on topical subjects that they want to discuss throughout the year and then have experts in that field come and talk about any changes to legislation, design and its impact on the industry.

Sarra goes on to explain: “Recently, I was fortunate enough to be asked to talk to a young woman who was undecided on what she wanted to do after college but had thought of construction. I told her about the role I used to have when setting out on site. She enjoyed maths and I knew that this would appeal to that aspect of her personality. She also liked the outdoors and was not fazed by working with men. This young woman is now working as an apprentice site engineer with a civils company while doing a degree part-time and she is loving it!”

We’re not going to solve the problem of a male-dominated industry overnight, but we can, together, look to create a more diverse and inclusive construction landscape. For Sarra, making the most of these key opportunities to raise the profile of the industry and show what is out there is really important. “There is still a perception that building is all about bricklayers and labouring, but this is not the case, and often students, as well as parents and teachers, need educating!”

Pictured: A few members of the Hawes team (left to right): Admin executive Sally Hamilton, managing director Bruce Hawes, director Sarra Hawes, surveyor Keith Robertson and accounts manager Katie Guindi

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