A View from the Top: Lucile Kamar, outgoing equalities manager at RICS, on the challenge of diversity in construction

Kamar oversees diversity for RICS, the construction and property industry body comprising 125,000 professionals in 148 countries. The industry is 87 per cent male

Hazel Sheffield
Thursday 09 November 2017 18:06 GMT
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Ms Kamar, fourth from right, receives a rising star award from WeAreTheCity, an organisation supporting women
Ms Kamar, fourth from right, receives a rising star award from WeAreTheCity, an organisation supporting women (RICS)

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Lucile Kamar is about to leave one of the toughest jobs in construction. As equalities manager at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, she has spent 18 months trying to address a serious gender problem in the industry.

Of the 2.3 million people working in the UK construction industry in December 2016, only 296,000 were women, according to official statistics. The sector is 87 per cent male. This is actually an improvement on two years earlier, when it was 99 per cent male.

“Construction is not as diverse as it could be,” Kamar, 29, says with characteristic diplomacy. She joined RICS in May 2016 from the Liberal Democrats, where she had a similar role as diversity and outreach manager.

At RICS, Kamar oversees diversity for over 125,000 professionals in 148 countries. After just nine months, she received the Diversity Rising Star award from women’s organisation WeAreTheCity, and she was featured on the 2017 Diversity Journal’s Global Diversity Leaders list and the Global Diversity list in 2016.

The work at RICS began before she arrived. Sensing the industry had a problem, RICS set up an initiative called Building Inclusivity in 2015. This awarded construction employers with a “quality mark” if they showed a commitment to increasing diversity, retaining staff and developing them through training and promotions. The group is planning a second report in 2018 to see how it has improved.

As part of the Building Inclusivity project, RICS held training sessions for surveyors and their teams to tackle unconscious bias during hiring and mitigating it in the workplace. Kamar says: “That can mean anything from looking at the language used in job descriptions, facilitating interview processes with candidates, asking for name-blank CVs and helping to assess candidates for promotion.”

Mark Walley, RICS regional managing director, credits Kamar for pushing the initiative among firms. “Lucile’s tireless work to encourage the profession to look carefully at their employment practices has been at the heart of this growth,” Walley says. “We now have 153 signatories, reaching more than 300,000 employees; something Lucile should be very proud of.”

Kamar became acutely aware of the injustices facing minorities during her childhood. Her family existed between French and Muslim cultures in the Champagne region of north-east France, where her mother was a primary school teacher and her father oversaw the management of the local sports facilities. “That’s something I took for granted,” she says of her upbringing, “having the richness of experience and having the opportunities to meet people who think differently.”

Initially she thought she wanted to be be a human rights lawyer, but her plans changed after she came to London to study for a degree in politics and international relations. She ended up working for the Liberal Democrats ahead of the 2015 general election.

Kamar believes change occurs when organisations lead by example. Since she joined, RICS chief executive Sean Tomkins has pledged to question invitations to speak on panels that aren’t diverse. “Rather than saying he will not attend, he will ask if they have considered inviting people from different backgrounds,” she says. “That has worked very well at changing the dialogue.”

The problem starts with intake: only 24 per cent of RICS students on 390 RICS accredited degree courses are female. RICS is taking steps to show young people from all backgrounds the benefits of a career in construction. This summer, RICS worked with a young vlogger called Eve Bennett to teach young people that construction isn’t all about hard hats and hi-vis. RICS has also developed a virtual reality app to show what it’s like on site for different projects.

The challenge isn’t just recruiting women, but keeping them. Male surveyors aged 18-22 earn an average of £22,937, while women of the same age are on £23,150. But the salaries of male surveyors aged 46-55 are more than £13,000 higher than their female peers.

Many women never come back to work after starting a family. “Increasingly, companies are learning about returnships,” Kamar says. “They are like a high-level internship with a good salary that give the opportunity for men or women who have been out of the workplace to come back.”

Diversity comes down to the details. The world’s population is becoming increasingly urban, with half of all people living in towns and cities. Urban areas must cater to an increasingly diverse set of needs.

“Cities are becoming more diverse and this presents new challenges relating to safety and sustainability,” Kamar says. “RICS professionals have the opportunity to rise up to these challenges and to benefit everyone, not just abled-bodied people. You can look at how street lights affect the safety of women, how buildings work together and connect. That’s why it’s important to have a diverse team to represent the diversity of people.”

Simone West, an access consultant at construction company Atkins, represents RICS on the government group developing inclusive design, and chairs the RICS inclusive design working group. She says that inclusiveness goes beyond complying with standards.

Atkins is building a special school for children with cerebral palsy, where British standard wheelchair-accessible toilets aren’t good enough to serve the children’s needs. “I have heard many designers saying things like ‘we only need to meet part M’ (a government building-access regulation) or ‘Approved Document M means it’s accessible’,” West says. “They are not really understanding what is demanded of a space, and are not addressing user needs. They are relying only on specific designs. As conscientious designers, shouldn’t we be asking pertinent questions of our clients?”

Small changes can improve access for the disabled or the elderly when it becomes too hard to open doors or twist taps, and when poor signage becomes a problem. “Inclusive design also considers people whose first language is not English, push chairs or adults with small children, people carrying bags, pregnant women, older people,” West says. “Different religions, ethnicity… in fact, everyone.”

Kamar says attention to detail was one of the most important things she learned on the job. “Never underestimate the power of what you think might be simple things that have a big impact,” she says. “What we do to promote diversity doesn’t have to be costly, but if the commitment is there it will work, it will be beneficial for everyone.”

The dialogue around diversity has shifted slightly since Kamar started in the industry. She no longer has to convince people that diversity is important. “Now the discussion is about how that translates into practical terms. It’s making sure anyone, regardless of their background, is given the opportunities to perform to the best of their ability.”

Real change is yet to be borne out by the numbers. There is much work still to be done. Although Kamar couldn’t divulge her new role by press time, she said she would continue to work on diversity and inclusion within the industry. “Growing up in a diverse environment made me quite aware of injustice,” she says. “It’s all about providing fairness and opportunity.”

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