Partner Spotlight: SHE BUILDS UK
London Build is proud to be working with SHE BUILDS UK as a Women in Construction partner for 2023. The initiative and exhibition was founded by Neil Perry, a commercial photographer specialising in architecture, design and the wider built environment. And Jessie’s dad. We spoke to Neil to find out about about the inspiration behind the images, and his hopes for the future of the industry.
- What inspired you to create SHE BUILDS UK? Could you share a little about the journey that led to its inception and how your daughter influenced this?
SHE BUILDS UK is entirely inspired by my daughter Jessie. About a year ago (when she was seven), she and I were out walking and I asked her what she’d like to do for a job when she was older. She asked me what jobs girls do, to which I replied she could do anything she wanted to do. Her response to that was “I can’t be a builder, only men are builders”. She obviously didn’t understand the magnitude of what she’d said (in fact, clearly, to her it was a legitimate statement), but I absolutely did.
Firstly, on a parent level I didn’t want my own daughter (or son for that matter) growing up believing that career paths were mapped out for them by their gender.
And secondly, it made me question what she had seen, heard, been told, read, taught, to make her conditioned at the age of 7 about career choices and gender stereotypes.
On the basis of those two points, I decided I’d try to use my own industry connections to do something about it - primarily for Jess. It was only through subsequent research into statistics that I realised there was the potential to try to make a difference on a wider scale.
- What message did you intend to convey through SHE BUILDS UK, and how does it challenge existing stereotypes in the UK’s construction industry?
Put simply, I wanted to communicate that women can and do work in the construction industry beyond administrative roles. I wanted to give younger females (and working-age women, too) somebody to look up to, to admire and to be inspired by. It’s why we refer to the group as rockstars. By showing younger kids images of real people with real stories, we are humanising the challenge to gender stereotypes; not just talking about it. We can demonstrate visually that there are women out there working, excelling and leading ‘in a man’s world’, and they’re just like you!
- In your view, what are some of the most compelling stories or experiences captured through SHE BUILDS UK that highlight the diverse roles women play in the construction sector?
To me, they’re all compelling. Some have surprising aspects. Some have fun and interesting aspects. But they’re all inspiring and I certainly don’t have a favourite. My eyes have been opened to all the wonderful different roles that exist - one of the women designs systems for delivering water around buildings at a safe and consistent rate and flow. A critical role that I, for one, took for granted!
- How did you go about selecting the subjects for the photographs? Can you tell us about some of the inspiring women featured and their contributions to the sector?
I began asking my own clients whether they’d be interested in taking part, which some were. And then it was a case of researching on LinkedIn and ‘selling’ the idea of the project. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent doing that! Once Aecom and Becthtel got involved with sponsoring the project, their connections came through pretty quickly. I asked the participants to share their involvement on LinkedIn and that helped drum up some extra interest, too. In the end we had 60 participants.
As I said before, for me they’re all inspiring. I actually really enjoyed the time we spent chatting while on the shoot because I got to learn a lot more about their back stories, their challenges, their successes and about them as ordinary people.
- What were some of the challenges you faced while developing and building the SHE BUILDS UK collection, and how did you overcome them? Were there any particularly memorable moments during the process?
My job is photographing architecture and the built environment. I’m not a portrait photographer and could never claim to be one. So the biggest challenge for me was the photography itself. I had a clear vision of how I wanted the photographs to look, but I didn’t really know how to use studio lights to make that happen. I enlisted the help of my friend and colleague James Tarry and between us we worked out the best method and approach. But I do remember being incredibly apprehensive about that aspect - to use a NASA term, it was the ‘critical point failure’ of the project!
I have lots of memorable moments from the shooting process but one does stand out. I won’t reveal her name but one lady was incredibly anxious and nervous about having her portrait taken. I tried everything to get her to relax, we took breaks, I asked if she wanted to see the images, etc. It was quite stressful because her anxiety was showing in the images I was getting and I was worried they’d be unusable.
However, I quickly realised that it was my responsibility to make it work because, despite how anxious and out of her comfort zone she was feeling, she still turned up. That told me that she absolutely believed in what I was trying to achieve with the project. She had forced herself to do something she doesn’t enjoy doing, with a total stranger, just to do her little bit for a wider message. I found that inspiring.
- How do you believe SHE BUILDS UK has impacted the perception of women in construction, both within the industry and the broader community? Has there been any notable changes or responses you've observed since the initiatives launch?
I think it’s too early to say at the moment. We’ve definitely had a very positive response, from individuals and organisations, which is great to see. Perhaps more exciting is the response we’ve had from the education sector. We’ve got more than 250 schools in England already signed up to a mailing list, and at our last exhibition (with Berkeley) we had four schools visit their Poplar Riverside development site (an active construction site) and do workshops alongside the exhibition.
To have a professional body like RICS involved as an official supporter is fantastic. We would like to see the same from CIOB, RIBA and ICE, too, to ensure that all quarters of the construction industry are aware of our efforts.
At the moment, if all we’re able to do is bring the issue into sharper focus for the industry and wider community, I think we’ll be pleased. I want this to grow and expand at its own rate because that will indicate that the industry and wider community is starting to take the problem more seriously.
- What were some of the lessons you personally gained through the journey of creating SHE BUILDS UK? Did your perspective on the role of women in construction evolve during this process?
It’s a bit of a mixture really. I feel I’ve become more humble because the amount of different people with incredibly inspiring stories and backgrounds that I met in such a relatively short space of time made me realise that there are people out there who don’t just go to work every day. They go to work every day in an industry dominated by men, dominated by male cultures, dominated by barriers, dominated by an acute lack of awareness about things women have to consider in their life (particularly around maternity and pregnancy), and dominated by lack of opportunity.
And yet I’ve met 60 people of all ages, from different backgrounds, from all levels of the hierarchy that have still chosen to work in that world because it’s what they enjoy doing.
At the same time, my eyes have been opened to those negative aspects of the industry because I think most people would agree they’re problems that are true of almost every other industry. And as a parent to a young daughter, that concerns me.
- Are there any plans to expand the collection or collaborate with other organisations to further promote gender diversity and inclusivity in the UK’s construction industry?
Absolutely. As I mentioned before, this needs to grow and expand at its own pace. We’re already looking at options with a major organisation and we’d really like to talk to the other professional bodies to see what they might be able to do to help us.
We’re keen to give this current group of participants a year in the spotlight before we embark on a new exhibition (which we definitely plan to do), and we’d also like to enhance the exhibition experience itself, too - maybe with some more video content and interactive elements to help young people engage even further.
- Could you shed light on the creative process behind the photography and curation of the exhibition? What were some of the key artistic choices that contributed to the overall impact of SHE BUILDS UK ?
The one thing that I was very clear about was that the portraits had to look the same. I imagined my own kids being shown a series of portraits and, knowing them, they’d be overwhelmed about which one to look at first, how to find the story in them, etc. I wanted SHE BUILDS UK to look like a set of trading cards! That way there would be a sense of familiarity for children, and instead the clothing, facial expressions and hairstyles would appear and appeal to them more easily.
In terms of the curation of the exhibition, we selected 20 individuals that would form the physical exhibition (though we’ve also got a digital version which features every single lady). The 20 were selected against a number of criteria, including visual aesthetic of the overall image (not the participant, I should add!), the individual’s story (each person had to submit a written profile), their role (we didn’t want an exhibition of 20 architects, for example), and their organisation (again, we didn’t want 10 people from one of the sponsor organisations).
I have to say, this aspect was incredibly challenging. As the owner of the project, I was acutely aware that I might end up upsetting somebody along the way - and there were one or two that were disappointed - and that was never my intention, of course. We had to make the exhibition as diverse in terms of what was available to us, and I’m confident we’ve achieved that.
- How has the feedback from visitors and the industry influenced the direction of the SHE BUILDS UK project? Have there been any specific anecdotes or testimonials that have particularly resonated with you?
Feedback in general has been extremely positive. There are things that we know we can improve - diversity in terms of ethnic backgrounds, for example. I’m aware that we don’t have anyone wearing a hijab or headscarf. That’s not intentional, of course. More than a hundred people were invited to take part, including some that would’ve changed that fact, and so maybe we need to work harder next time in encouraging them to do so.
The work that has been done with Berkeley over the last few months (I should make it clear here that Arti Gurjar, one of our rockstars, has been pivotal in arranging that) has been exciting and has possibly modelled how we might take things forward.
- Looking ahead, what do you hope will be the lasting legacy of SHE BUILDS UK? How do you aspire for it to inspire future generations and contribute to a more inclusive and equitable space within the construction industry?
We want to directly lead to a sustainable and sustained increase in the number of females working in the construction industry and also to the number of females taking STEM subjects at school, college and university. One of our longer term goals is to become the first port of call for younger females who are considering working in the construction industry. We can see lots of potential for various endeavours under the SHE BUILDS UK name, not just a photography exhibition.
For more information and to see the next dates, please go to: www.shebuilds.uk/the-story
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