How women in construction can make their mark

Katie Kelleher
4 min read

How Katie Kelleher’s role as one of the only female crane drivers in the UK is helping women’s access to STEM careers.

Did you know that women make up only around 10% of construction sector workers? The picture is even worse when you look at the numbers working on site, where only 2.5% of workers are female. Katie Kelleher, one of a handful of female crane drivers in the UK, is one of the 2.5%, and she is determined to grow the numbers.

She knows there’s a big challenge ahead. In her own words: “the situation can’t be changed overnight.”

But if anyone can help achieve real change, Katie can. As one of five female crane operators at Laing O’Rourke’s plant specialist Select, she was listed in the 2018 Sunday Telegraph’s Top 50 most influential women of engineering, named as one of Construction News’ 15 people to watch in 2019; has made an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour and presented a segment on TV show, Impossible Engineering . And, as an esteemed STEM ambassador, she’s used her profile to highlight many, varied roles available to women in the sector.

Laing O’Rourke is stepping up to accelerate the challenge of creating a more inclusive workplace and in April 2021 announced its commitment to achieve equal numbers of men and women among its 5,500 global staff by 2033, with additional gender-focused initiatives to be set out to improve representation among frontline construction workers like Katie.

The experiences of women like Katie will help shape plans to achieve these far-reaching targets. Having made the career switch from recruitment consultant to newly-qualified crane driver, Katie reminisces about her first day, some seven years ago, when she said that she realised just how much of a challenge her gender was going to present.

“It felt awful on day one, I have to admit. Nobody can prepare you to work on a construction site. I was two hours early for work, eager to start a new career manoeuvring heavy loads over what looked like a sea of men. When I said I’m here for the induction, people just stared at me.”

Things got better from that day on and juggling her operational duties with her ambassadorial roles Katie quickly became one of the most recognisable faces in the construction industry. And she’s determined to continue to make the most of her influence.

“I suppose I became something of a flag-bearer for women in construction. I’m a member of apprentice boards and I give talks at schools, I chat to mums’ groups and at industry events, telling people about my experiences. I’m really pleased that my efforts won me shortlistings in the Construction News Talent Awards (2018) and the Sunday Telegraph’s Top 50 Women in Engineering.”

Swapping out a comfortable 9-5 in a nice, sheltered office to a Laing O’Rourke construction site like the massive Tideway project or the Northern Line Extension, both in London may not seem like an obvious choice. But Katie thinks differently:

“It is a good industry for people to work in. But, if we’re not telling young people at school and we’re not telling people’s parents, then we’re not putting it out there as a viable option. We do degree, professional, trade and technical apprenticeships as well as structured graduate programmes and industrial placements. Construction and engineering offer so many exciting opportunities. I just tell people about the possibilities.”

“I've had my friends report back to me that their daughters have expressed an interest in becoming engineers, and even crane drivers. That makes me very happy, there is so much opportunity in the construction industry. Especially for women.”

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I’m genuinely delighted with the possibilities offered by my employers. Laing O’Rourke’s an ever-changing company. I started as a crane operator and now I do all these talks and things. Your job role just seems to get as big as you want it to get.

Katie Kelleher Speaking as a newly-qualified crane driver

This article has been updated since its original publication on 08/11/2018.