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Paving the way for a gender equal world

Diversity and Inclusion By Smitha Mathew, Engineer, Building Services – 12 April 2022

Smitha Mathew smiling in front of the camera


Smitha Mathew smiling with her pink blouse and navy blue coat.

Smitha Mathew

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Recently Middle East Consultant caught up with Smitha Mathew, Engineer about her experiences working in the male dominated industry across the GCC.

This article was originally published in Middle East Consultant, February 2022.

What drove you to get into construction and what was your very first role in the industry? What were some of the influences that set you on your path?

My first role in the construction industry happened by chance. Just after college, I secured a job in Extra Low Voltage (ELV) design where I learned about the industry and the various elements that need to be integrated into a design. My very first project involved working onsite for a government client with high, exacting standards and a very tight schedule. This was a steep learning curve for me and I was proud to be rewarded with a letter of appreciation at the end. Seeing a project come to life gives me a sense of purpose. Every day has been a learning experience that enriches my understanding of the design process, client engagement and project management. Recent advancements and the rapid adoption of technology have led to the development of incredible designs that live in harmony with the architecture and intent of a building. These developments have continually influenced and helped me evolve my own approach to project design.

Share a brief about your career, mentioning key achievements with regards to your role.

I am proud of how my responsibilities and roles have evolved throughout the course of my career. I started as a pre-sales engineer on the contracting side of engineering, before moving on to handling design, client interaction and project management. I’ve had the chance to work on some incredibly complex projects such as airports that involved having to learn many new systems and guidelines very quickly in order for me to deliver. I have also thoroughly enjoyed having the chance to mentor younger engineers: sharing my knowledge, providing meaningful opportunities for growth and helping facilitate their early careers in the construction industry.

Besides fairness and being the right thing to do, diversity in the construction industry is important because of the value women can bring to employers, clients and customers. How have you made your mark in the industry working on projects specifically?

Cundall is being bold in its pursuit of its goal to be the most inclusive consultancy in our industry. This means constantly challenging the status quo and building a culture that embraces all aspects of diversity. In my opinion, a huge part of achieving diversity lies in understanding the different perspectives brought by different genders. One of my proudest moments came last year when I led the design of a large bank in Oman. The client wanted to create an architectural masterpiece and steer clear of the traditional ‘building block layout’. The building design was a majestic, unique geometric structure conveying the idea of a ‘symbol of infinity’ to anyone who viewed it externally. The smooth, curved arrangement presented many challenges in terms of design and product selection and overcoming these is one of my proudest moments.

What are some of the barriers to women entering the construction industry? What was your personal experience?

One of the key barriers holding women back in the workplace is people’s mindsets. In order for women to be successful, the general mindset must be altered from the offset, and a belief distilled that she can and will perform to the same level as her colleagues. Overcoming this personal barrier is the key to being successful, not just in construction but any other field.

The GCC construction sector is still male dominated, however diversity is beginning to increase. If you agree with the above line, comment on what is driving this and how you see the GCC markets changing in the coming years?

The GCC is still very much male dominated, and gender diversity is not something that happens overnight. In order to bridge this diversity gap we must encourage more women to come forward and apply for these roles. The market is constantly evolving, and the past few years have seen more woman leaders emerge within the industry. Employers across construction must work together, with urgency, to effect change in how we attract and retain great people.

Everyone has a part to play in diversity and equal pay. What would you like to see government authorities and construction firms do to increase diversity and make pay a level playing field?

The UAE government has always been a strong advocate for gender diversity, equality, and parity in pay. However, what governments must also do is implement laws that support this. The ownership to maintain pay parity currently lies heavily with individual companies. While some employers have been creative in carving restructures and designations that support pay equality, there is still a lot more than needs to be done. In an ideal world, more companies would step forward and take on responsibility for ensuring equal pay and opportunities, but in reality it is legislation that is needed. I firmly believe that we can reach a day where no inequality exists in terms of gender, race, ethnicity or nationality.

“Never be afraid to step up and be a driving force behind the change that our industry needs.”

Besides authorities and construction firms, who else can play a part in increasing diversity and balancing pay scales?

I believe that any market is dictated by the needs of the customer. There should be an increased demand from the customer to ensure that diversity is well documented and established. The selection of partners and suppliers should also not be solely based on price but on social responsibility.

As a woman in the industry, what has your experience been working in the GCC construction sector?

I am fortunate that my primary experience has been in the GCC market. While I have faced challenges in finding the right employer, I feel lucky to say that I have not faced any gender-based discrimination in any of my roles. I would say that I have been very lucky to work across diverse and complex projects that have challenged me to step outside of my comfort zone and quickly pick up new skills.

In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge women in the construction sector face in GCC countries? How can these challenges be addressed?

While there are many challenges in our industry, I believe that maintaining a work-life balance is one of the biggest that many people, particularly women, face. For many people it can seem impossible to find that sweet spot between work and home. Working in a supportive organisation like Cundall, where my colleagues understand the importance of this balance and are always available to connect makes all the difference.

In doing your job, what sort of discrimination (if any) have you faced and how did you address it?

I have been fortunate to not experience any discrimination in my career. Cundall has been a pioneer in ensuring and committing to gender equality, sustainability, and diversity in ethnicity. Since it is engrained in the work culture, I believe that every activity around staffing and recruiting has been very organic in achieving diversity. The key to bridging the diversity gap is communication within the organisation. We are always encouraged to talk about and discuss issues at work and to bring these to our colleagues’ attention when faced with a problem. Work stress is always there but this is greatly reduced by having clear communication, irrespective of the diverse cultures that we all come from.

Do you feel there’s a limit with regards to how far you can progress within your respective organisation?

I believe that the limits are self-determined by each individual. I make sure that every day I work hard and continue to be inspired. I strongly believe that hard work, dedication and sincerity never goes unnoticed. Cundall provides all employees with opportunities to thrive and reach their potential, regardless of their gender or any other factors. There are no limits within Cundall.

How does the firm you currently work for approach diversity in the workplace?

Cundall is dedicated to transforming the future of the industry and has taken many steps to achieving a diverse workforce. Over the past year we have seen a lot of positive change including the adoption of new D&I policies such as the Rooney Rule for all leadership-level recruitment and our first neurodiversity policy. We have also seen the number of women in leadership roles double. Cundall is ensuring that D&I remains central to how things are done, and is a fundamental component of the company’s culture and identity. We have launched many campaigns and initiatives that celebrate diversity and advocate for inclusion, as well as actively participating in industry groups such as the Emirates Green Building Councils Women Network.

How do you personally push for diversity and equal pay in the construction sector?

Diversity is a continual process that ensures we are constantly changing and creating new dynamics that will strengthen a company in the long run. I believe that we must all educate ourselves and take the time to learn about our colleagues, to gain a greater sense of cultural appreciation and sensitivity. I’m proud to be part of Cundall’s GAIN affinity network which provides support for women and gender minority colleagues across the business.

What advice would you give to a woman entering the GCC construction industry today?

My advice is to work hard and be confident when offered a challenge or a demanding role. Never be afraid to step up and be a driving force behind the change that our industry needs.

Learn more about Cundall's diversity and inclusion strategy here.