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From ‘MeToo’ to HS2: Chief engineer says construction is on the right path to equality

When Jo Chell first worked on a construction site, she, like other women in that particular workspace, felt uneasy. Jo was subjected to “horrendous” treatment as a wide-eyed engineer.

Twenty-five years in the landscape is very different, not just for Jo – who now finds himself in charge of a 90km stretch of HS2 that runs through Warwickshire, past Coventry and into Birmingham and the north of Staffordshire – but for many other women who have chosen to follow a similar path professionally. The culture is totally different and Balfour Beatty Vinci (BBV), HS2 Ltd’s construction partner for this section of the project, would lead the way.

BBV has chosen International Women in Engineering Day to showcase its efforts to put women at the center of its operations at the colossal 55-hectare HS2 complex in Kingsbury. As head of delivery program management, Wolverhampton-born Jo is BBV’s longest-serving engineer.

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And she may have had to work twice as hard as many of her male peers to achieve such a high position. Plus, she had to overcome prejudices and the kind of challenges that one can only hope have been relegated to the history books.

“I had experiences when I was a junior engineer that I didn’t report,” Jo told CoventryLive during the first media tour of the Kingsbury site, one of eight she and BBV are responsible for on this part of the line. “Experiences that would be horrible today.

“I just felt that if I reported bad behavior towards me as a woman, it would somehow affect my opportunities in the future. I would be seen as someone who could cause trouble or was a feminist or something that would really hamper my career, so I shut up and ignored things.

“What we’re really doing now is empowering all of our staff to speak up. We have a respect program and everyone is supported. If they bring up things they’re not up to comfortable, even like having good facilities for women and toilets you can access and just basic needs that women might have that are a bit different from men.

Balfour Beatty Vinci’s huge HS2 complex in Kingsbury, Warwickshire

“The workplace is a lot more accommodating to women. Attitudes have changed and it’s a really great place to have a career, so things have definitely changed.” So much so that BBV even offers maternity-size PPE, explained Vicki Lovatt, head of learning and development at BBV’s Skills Academy at the Kingsbury compound.

“We have whistleblower hotlines, so anything that comes out of that is investigated, along with any behavioral observations on our apps,” Vicki said. “We have an employee relations team that will investigate them.

“It’s interesting because sometimes you only get one side of the story, but here you get both. It’s not just bad behavior towards women, it’s bad behavior towards women. people in general.

“We have maternity PPE in store so this is a big step forward and we will cater for any special requirements. We do a lot of occupational health assessments with our staff and absolutely encourage people to tell us what they need to get to work.”

The huge Balfour Beatty Vinci complex and Academy of Skills near Kingsbury in Warwickshire
The huge Balfour Beatty Vinci complex and Academy of Skills near Kingsbury in Warwickshire

Around one in five of BBV’s workforce on the HS2 contract is female with roughly the same ratio across the various courses offered by Kingsbury Academy, which will soon have 1,000 staff. “It’s about having programs that encourage women in the workplace,” Vicki added. “We have a number of parent company programs for women’s empowerment, for example.”

Opportunities exist for women in occupations once considered to be male-dominated. “Yes, and we still have a lot of work to do to attract women into construction,” added Jo.

“When I joined the industry 25 years ago, I met people there and they expected me to know all the other women who worked in construction, even if they might have come from a job 100 miles away. ‘Oh you must know Emily or must know Jennifer’.

“Really the women on the yard was a very unusual thing. From the moment I walked into the yard I knew this was the career I wanted to do. Just the excitement of being there and be part of the construction process.

Balfour Beatty Vinci apprentices at the HS2 complex in Kingsbury, Warwickshire
Balfour Beatty Vinci apprentices at the HS2 complex in Kingsbury, Warwickshire

“It gave me the opportunity to travel around the UK, experience new things and also work internationally. It’s been a fantastic career.”

HS2 is the biggest infrastructure project in Europe, creating thousands and thousands of jobs in various sectors and salary levels. And it might also be the most controversial.

Vast swaths of countryside have been turned and repackaged into construction sites with Kingsbury the mother of all. Considered a giant outdoor factory, Kingsbury is in many ways the epicenter of Stage 1, the London-Birmingham leg.

It acts as a hub for the Delta Junction leading into Birmingham and as a conduit for Phase 2 linking Coleshill to East Midlands Parkway where the HS2 track will branch off to the Midlands Main Line.

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