A Woman’s TOUCH

Published 8 years ago

Despite preconceptions, you will find women in powerful roles are more than capable of outperforming their male counterparts across the infrastructure value chain.

As a sponsor of Woman in the Built Environment initiatives and training and career development, my former company, Group Five, led from the front. But it’s the girl power that we unearthed and nurtured that was an inspiration to me.

We committed ourselves to targeted recruitment at student level to attract ladies in all the engineering disciplines, quantity surveyors, construction management, finance and HR, to drive gender and racial transformation. Dedicated gender orientated programs followed.


The success stories are legendary. The 14,000-employee Group Five created an environment where women rose to the highest ranks, including board level and divisional unit directors, through to technical and support roles.

The most incredible stories came from the construction divisions. We placed newly graduated female students to fast track local-based programs and then deployed them to participate on an equal footing with the guys in some of the most remote sites across Africa.

One young lady was a construction management graduate who was bored with building another Sandton office block. So, we sent her to a mine construction site in Ghana. A few years later, she rose to become the successful multidisciplinary construction manager responsible for the complete mine construction project in a remote site in Mali, with a workforce of over 300. She did this while in her twenties!

HR is often a female-dominated field, but not historically in construction, given the robust male-dominated manpower, and remote location, challenges. Group Five changed that and after only a few years many of the most senior human and industrial relations posts were occupied by a group of tough, confident ladies. They dealt with violent labor disputes at home and in Southern and West Africa, but were able to stand as role models for the young recruits and we started to see long-term careers being nurtured across the group after many years of countering the notion that construction is not sexy or rewarding. For the next generation, particularly for females, we changed that perception.


The group won the right to construct the iconic Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital as a direct result of the strong female and demographically representative team that inspired the trustees of the Children’s Fund. The team delivered on every promise made in the execution of the project, which included tough social and transformative targets.

Female leadership in finance and commercial law is an inspiration to the construction industry, from gender activists and shareholders to the many aspirant female accounting graduates who rapidly rose to manage the finances of a suite of highly complex businesses. From basic construction to the securing of turnkey power plant and transport projects across Africa, where the group took an equity stake and executed the turnkey engineering design and construction, or led the debt and equity strategies with financial services partners, females led the way.

Group Five’s CFO won the 2014 Business Woman of the Year award for her leadership in driving business systems re-engineering, transformation, shareholder relationships and women in construction initiatives within the industry, and raised two kids at the same time. How many men can follow that?

In African construction, “if the mossies don’t get you, the taxman will” – some may recall this amusing tale from an earlier column. We nurtured another young star from the finance team who became an industry authority on African tax, the law, and what coercion one might find at a site when the taxman arrives with his own militia. Our team knew more about their tax laws than the taxman himself.


Our protégé was so successful that she became the tax lead for a big branded legal firm.

We attracted and developed skilled females across Africa and beyond – our brand had become synonymous with enlightened attitudes, was recognized as a socially responsible organization in many countries. To drive our geographic strategy, we needed skills from across the target countries. This gave us technical, construction, finance and HR skills from as far afield as the Philippines, India, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe.

Fast forward to 2016 and look at which construction companies are surviving, if not thriving, amid an industry in deep recession. I wonder if it’s the female touch that has made the difference?