A flexible approach by employers to childcare and working hours is attracting more women to a traditionally male profession, says Ellie Levenson

In 2000 the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) set up the Raising the Ratio taskforce to help break down barriers to the recruitment and retention of women in the property profession. Its work centres around five key statements, which RICS calls their "five uncommon values". These are to represent and effectively communicate the issues and challenges faced by women throughout the property and construction profession, to attract the best candidates into the profession irrespective of gender, to create a meritocracy within the profession, to break down barriers that prevent women from entering the profession and to keep women's issues high on the agenda of people in the profession, the employers, the educationalists and the Government.

"The role of RICS's Raising the Ratio taskforce is to highlight the issues and opportunities for women in the surveying and property professions. It aims to work with employers to encourage them to draw skills and talent from a wider pool," says Jonathan Harris, chair of the taskforce. "Excluding 50 per cent of the population on the basis of their gender is not only discriminatory but ultimately bad for business."

When the taskforce was set up, of the 95,000 chartered surveyors working worldwide only 10 per cent were women. In recent years, however, there has been a significant rise in the number of young women applying for places on RICS-accredited degree courses. Surveying, it seems, is finally losing its reputation as being for men only.

Gillian Bowman, director of investment valuations at Atisreal, started working as a surveyor in 1989. "I was told by people in the industry that I would never make it in such a male dominated profession. The industry has changed considerably since then and I have proved them wrong by moving my way up the ranks to become a senior director."

Bowman has two young children and has been able to combine childcare with her job: "I have been fortunate enough to have very understanding managers who allowed me to work flexible hours in order to dedicate more time to my family. When my children were first born I worked part-time and eventually was able to increase that to a full-time workload, working some days from home. My children are now aged nine and six and obviously they are always my main priority. However, it is also important for me to have a career. The combination of having always had understanding managers, a supportive husband and good childcare has allowed me to achieve a successful balance between my professional and family life."

Atisreal is proud of the commitment to flexible working. "The company already offers enhanced maternity and paternity benefits, with such features as a 'return to work' bonus for women returning from maternity leave," says Tracey Wells, director of human resources. "Next year we are looking to further review benefits such as sabbaticals and career breaks. In such a demanding industry it is important that anyone with caring commitments or a family, whether they are male or female, is given the option of working flexible hours and is able to work from home when necessary."

Such policies are not just important for ethical reasons, but to ensure business success. When tendering for government contracts, companies are required to show an equal opportunities policy. This is proving particularly important in the tenders for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

It is also important in retaining staff. Past RICS research showed that in many cases the profession was losing experienced women who were choosing to retrain in other family friendly professions such as teaching after having a family. One woman reversing this trend is Lisa Tippen, principal surveyor at Edward Symmons in Southampton, herself a member of the taskforce.

"I work as a principal surveyor in the valuation services division. The normal office hours are 9am to 5.30 pm Monday to Friday, but with the advances in portable IT and mobile telecommunication technology, remote working is possible and encouraged," she says. "I also have access to an excellent childcare voucher scheme that minimises conflicts between work and homelife."

Her advice for women wishing to go back to work in surveying after starting a family is fourfold. "Sell the positives to your employer of taking on an experienced, knowledgeable senior surveyor who is committed to her job while maintaining an appropriate work/life balance, communicate effectively the issues faced by women returners from the outset and be upfront with regards to regular childcare commitments such as school pick ups, male counterparts to enter into the work/life balance ethic too and take advantage of any childcare incentives offered by employers.

Tippen often goes into schools and colleges to talk about surveying as a career option. "I go to a lot of girls' schools and careers teachers are now promoting chartered surveying as a career for girls. A lot of people don't know what a chartered surveyor does and that there are so many types including environmental surveying, property developing, building surveying and quantity surveying and rural surveying. I say to people that if they want a job that involves travel, meeting different types of people and getting out of the office then surveying is good for all of that."

Jacqui Allen, a chartered building surveyor and partner at Tuffin Ferraby Taylor, agrees that one of the main problems is a lack of awareness about surveying generally. "I have done some careers fairs promoting surveying as a profession and very few women came up to the stand but when they did they didn't have much of an idea about what surveying entailed. When I told them they seemed to be genuinely surprised and quite buoyed up about surveying as a career. This is where things have got to improve. School children don't know what surveyors do. "Surveying has been backward in coming forward in this respect."

Allen says work has to be done to inform women about what the job involves: "I think there's a myth around construction for women in that it's seen as a male dominated industry with a lot of men wandering around in dirty boots and when I was younger there was a little bit more surprise when you walked onto a construction site and turned out to be a woman but that has changed now. We need to talk to people at school level and tell them that it is a profession as fulfilling as going into law or accounting, and in my experience a lot more interesting."

In fact Allen promotes surveying to women in exactly the same way as she does to men: "This job is good for anyone whether they are a man or a woman. It's varied. There's a lot of time spent out of the office. It's an interesting workload and no two jobs are the same. It's a very challenging role and there is no reason at all why women shouldn't do it."