FROM working in Australian mines to building laboratories in London, structural, civil and environmental engineer Marguerite O’Callaghan is one of the few females working in the construction industry.
A recent report by the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) showed that just 1% of those working in the construction industry in Ireland are women. The lobby-group has appealed to more women to consider it as a viable career. They say that increasing the number of women on sites could be key to kickstarting construction in Ireland.
Graduating from Cork’s Institute of Technology (CIT) in 2010, among a class of 45 men and five women, Marguerite was told by her lecturers to go travelling or do a masters due to the collapse of the economy.
Eight years later, after spending three and a half years working in construction in Australia and four more working in London, Marguerite returned to Ireland to work for Cahalane Brothers in Dunmanway.
“2010 was probably one of the worst times to graduate as an engineer,” Marguerite said.
“It was the first year that no one came to interview us at the college.”
Speaking about why she wanted to work in the construction industry, she said that she was always one for tinkering with things at home and she didn’t want a desk job.
“I think I was always good at maths. It was probably my prefered subject and I didn’t like the idea of working in an office all the time. I suppose I wanted to do something different.
“I was always a kind of outside person and a hands-on person. So I just decided I would go for it.”
Marguerite said she didn’t realise the extent of the male dominance within the industry until she started working in it.
“I knew that we would be in the minority, but not to the extent I experienced.”
The structural engineer said that she often gets asked on site if she is the safety officer and when she worked in London she was often mistaken for the secretary, but the resilient young woman said it never bothers her.
“When I was working in London, we had a site office. We had a male secretary and they used to walk past him and straight into me. I had to be like ‘back up there now!’ It is just people’s perceptions and assumptions, I wouldn’t get offended by it.”
Speaking about why the industry is so skewed towards men, Marguerite said it was an archaic perception we were brought up with that is slowly eroding.
She said that it is definitely not the case that the work is better suited to men.
“I always remember on my first job in Australia. There were dumper drivers and we had to pick the best dumper driver out of four people and there was one girl and we all picked her. She was the only other woman there.”
After three and a half years in Australia, Marguerite left for London where she spent four years working on various projects, some which were more successful than others.
Marguerite described one project that was held up by a mishap and also explained how she dealt with the disruption to her schedule.
“Over in London, we were putting in a steel beam. It was the main beam in the building and it was to hold up five floors. The drawings were approved but the contractor cut the beam to old drawings instead of the newer, revised, approved drawings.
“The beam came and it was wrong. It was a Sunday morning and we had set up a 25-tonne crane in the middle of London at 6.30am.
“It took three and a half hours to set up and the beam came and we measured it and we realised it wasn’t to the correct specification.”
Marguerite said they assessed their options before dismantling the crane and sending the beam back to the contractor to be cut.
“We tried to put it in, but it wasn’t fitting and we couldn’t cut the beam onsite as it would not have been certified. So I had to make a decision that they couldn’t cut the beam and had to sacrifice the crane coming down again and being demobilised and organising it all again for two weeks time.”
Marguerite said the second time around, she called into the subcontractors to measure the beam before it left the yard.
“I didn’t want it to be another Sunday morning wasted,” she added.
Her proudest accomplishment to-date also took place in London where Marguerite managed a greenfield project from start to finish.
“My first job over in London was a laboratory building. I was there from the very start, from laying out the foundations to fitting the last socket in the building, which was great.
“I saw it from a greenfield to completely finished and it was a great project and I got to touch on managing mechanical and electrical, so it really opened up my professional development.”
Offering advice to young women who may be considering a career in construction, Marguerite said maths is a big part of getting through the college course, but on the ground, it is all about management and people skills.
“If you like to be outside, give it a go. It is a really good degree because even if you don’t like it, it is a level 8 degree and it is really easy to switch to something else,” she said.
Speaking about the reputation of construction as a male-dominated world, Marguerite said she doesn’t let it get to her.
“I don’t think I have ever felt uncomfortable on site because I was a woman. I think people can overthink it a bit and be frightened of it, whereas I think you should just give it a go.
“I think women feel like they are walking into a men’s club and that is not the case. You see films that show you this male-dominated environment having a laugh, but it is not like that, it is a workplace and everyone just gets on with it.”
Just 1% of people working in the construction industry in Ireland are female. Evening Echo report Roisin Burke spoke to Marguerite O’Callaghan about her experience in the male-dominated industry.