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From the pitch to the yard: Bradfords hosts roundtable to celebrate International Women’s Day at Exeter Chiefs’ grounds

In advance of International Women’s Day, Bradfords hosted a roundtable session at the Exeter Chiefs Women’s ground, to celebrate women in construction in the South-West and hear from chief coach of the Exeter Chiefs’ Women’s team Susie Appleby, and Exeter Chiefs backrow Linde Van Der Velden, who is also a part-time architect.

As well as discussing their career paths and experiences, the group put forward practical actions that would help attract and retain women in the construct



ion sector, to be taken forward by Bradfords and its partners. As a founding member of the Construction Inclusion Coalition, and through participation in initiatives such as the BMF sector awareness campaign, Bradfords has a platform to connect and influence the wider sector to improve efforts around equality, diversity, and inclusion.


The session was chaired by Bradfords’ Regional Director Cath Mullin, and attended by Sally Woofenden, Co-Founder and Financial Director of Woofenden Construction, Samantha Wilson, Head of Apprenticeships at Exeter College and Claire Evans, Director of SC Evans Developments. Bradfords’ employees Chelsea Bradford, Sales Advisor, Georgie Sansom, Sales Development Manager and Charlotte Porteous, Stock and Operational Process supervisor, also attended, as well as current Exeter College apprentices, Ellen Shaw and Ashleigh Freeman, studying civil engineering and architecture respectively.


Bringing together women at the start of their careers with more experienced counterparts and representing not just merchanting but wider construction including development and education – as well as high-level sport – the discussion covered a broad range of topics.


There are plenty of shared experiences between rugby and construction

As Susie Appleby noted: “Rugby is not a man’s sport, it’s a sport”. The same goes for construction, which despite progress being made is still seen as a male-dominated sector. Susie shared her experience of establishing the Women’s team at Exeter, and the challenges around seemingly simple changes such as a lack of facilities for the female players. She and Linde discussed the need for women players to have dual careers on and off the pitch, in contrast to the men.


The group agreed that while challenging and still not equal, this did mean the Chief’s women players had an opportunity to consider their future careers. Susie noted: “We have to consider – do our players know what all the possible pathways are for after their playing careers? Back when I started playing, I couldn’t even have imagined I would be standing in front of you as a head coach of a premiership women’s team. Being able to see those opportunities, and be given the chance to work out what is right for each individual, is so important.”


As in construction, where leadership positions are still predominately held by men, this visibility in a range of roles is vital, as are the different pathways to reach more senior positions; as these are so varied across functions and construction businesses.


Role models can take many shapes and forms


The group shared what had inspired them to pursue a career in the construction sector, with many noting that they found their way into construction by chance; as a result of a family connection or work experience opportunity. Many agreed that role models can take many forms. Family support was a real factor in whether a career in construction was considered a viable option, with dads and male family members who encouraged attendees mentioned frequently; as well as the fact that if families are not supportive, young women may never pursue an interest in the industry.


Work to change perceptions needs to start at school


The opportunities – and barriers – to start a career in the construction sector were discussed at length. Samantha Wilson, as Head of Apprenticeships at Exeter College, emphasised the range of routes available, including T-Levels and Uni apprenticeships, but acknowledged that the awareness of these routes and preparedness to suggest them to young women, is still not where it needs to be. This was seconded by Bradfords Sales Advisor Chelsea Bradford, who shared her experience of being directed towards college courses focused on childcare and beauty, rather than trades or other options that would have suited her skillset but are still considered to be male-dominated.


The need for female representation at careers fairs and during the work experience process was discussed, as younger attendees agreed that these early interactions with the world of work and the construction sector can shape perceptions and encourage – or put off – young people.


We need to reflect the communities we build for


Many of the recommendations and reflections shared by the group are key not just for encouraging more women to join merchanting and construction sector, but also more general diversity, inclusion and equality. For example, Cath Mullin emphasised the importance of taking a chance on people at the application phase; saying: “We should never dismiss someone at the CV stage, just because they haven’t worked in our industry before. Our business is all about customer service, and to discover that spark in people, you need to give them a chance by speaking on the phone at least.


The group shared experiences of being underestimated or ignored by male customers or colleagues, who may have questioned their expertise or been surprised by their interest in the sector. Many attendees agreed that these occurrences were rare, and that it felt like the environment was changing. They discussed a strong sense of solidarity and trust between female merchant employees, customers, and suppliers, which could in many instances be stronger than for male counterparts.


Bradfords has a role to play in bringing about change


Bradfords, as a founding member of the Construction Inclusion Coalition (CIC), has pledged to work on attracting a more diverse talent pool and enhancing the impact of our DE&I initiatives alongside partners across the sector supply chain. These two platforms are significant for sector collaboration but this event demonstrates the importance of underpinning this activity with honest discussions and ideas put forward by those within the sector.

Images by Ben Marshall, Exeter Chiefs.

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