Interview with Emma Nicholson, B.A, MSc, FCIOB, FIEMA, FWES, CEnv, FAPM, the Founding Director of Women in Sustainable Construction and Property

todayAugust 18, 2021


Jackie De Burca
So I’d like to extend a warm welcome to Emma Nicholson. Emma, you’re a woman in construction with many letters after your name. Can you tell us what they mean and who you are professionally?

In 2010, you became a Charter Environmentalist

Emma Nicholson
Hi Jackie. Yes, of course. So I have 23 years experience in the built environment and have also worked in infrastructure. And since 2019, I’ve worked in the rail industry. In 2010 I became a charter environmentalist via the charters to building route. I’ve always worked in project management and this profession, I think, provides transferable skills. So I’ve always been able to transfer these skills, and I’ve also transferred them to the environmental sustainability sector.

I studied for a master’s degree in construction project management at Southbank University, graduating in 2003. And I became a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Building in 2010, and also a fellow of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment. And then I became an Associate Fellow of the Women’s Engineering Society in 2020.

And this year, I was awarded a Fellowship of the Association of Project Management. And fellowships are reflected for the work that I’ve undertaken professionally over 23 years, and also extracurricular voluntary work in the industry. So professionally, I’m at a senior level of project management. And I’m also a board trustee on two boards. I mentor a couple of young females, one is an environmental scientist, and the other is an assistant site manager.

You originally studied English

Okay, I did notice your mentoring, let’s talk about that in a bit more detail, but later on. And also, I noticed when studying your profile, you originally studied English when you’re in uni, what inspired you to change into the path that you’re on today?

Yeah, that’s right. So my first degree was in English literature. And I really enjoyed my studies when I studied for that degree. My favourite subjects at school were actually arts and English, rather than maths and science. And I think appreciation of Victorian poetry and Shakespearean plays was such a complete change from the construction studies that I undertook later on.

Well, years ago, back in the late 1990s, I was attracted by interior design and periodical journalism. And I worked for Elle Decoration Magazine for a couple of weeks. Then, I became an interior design assistant for an architectural company. And I worked on high spec residential properties in London. And I guess this kind of sparked my interest in working on buildings. And I moved down into the built environment.

So I came into the construction industry through a job opportunity

So I came into the construction industry through a job opportunity that was advertised for a trainee role in London back in 1998. And the company took me on and agreed to sponsor me for a master’s degree in Construction, Project Management. So I studied one day a week and then worked the rest. And then I gained gradually- experience in different sectors of the construction industry, working for consultancies in London and Leeds such as and like working in the retail sector. That’s where I started out, and then also then worked in the commercial sector, leisure, heritage and education, on educational buildings in the built environment.

women in construction

You’re currently a Sustainability Ambassador for the Major Projects Association

Okay, that’s a very good, varied background. Now, amongst your many accomplishments, you’re currently a sustainability ambassador for the Major Projects Association. Can you tell us a bit about this, please, Emma?

Oh yes. Thank you, Jackie. Yeah. So I became a sustainability ambassador for the Major Projects Association just last year. And there are a number of very well-known organisations that are corporate members of the Major Projects Association. So my firm was a corporate member. And when I looked online, I saw an opportunity to become a sustainability ambassador and represent my organisation. So I signed up to join and it allows networking with other sustainability ambassadors from other organisations. And in my role, I support the Major Projects Association with regards to my sustainability experience as and when opportunities arise and I’m sort of fairly new to this role as well.

You’re also chair of the Women’s Engineering Society Equality Diversity and Inclusion Specialist Interest Group

Okay, excellent. So on top of the hustle, I don’t know how you find all the hours in the day to do exactly what you’re doing right now. On top of that Emma, you’re also chair of the Women’s Engineering Society Equality Diversity and Inclusion Specialist Interest Group. What is involved in this? And what does this mean to you?

Yeah, sure. Well, I’m a board trustee with the Women’s Engineering Society. I became a board trustee last year. And early this year, I agreed to volunteer to support this charity in setting up a specialist interest group inequality, diversity inclusion, and it was required as one of the charity’s objects. So this is a role- it’s kind of developed further through being on the CIB’s advisory panel. So I’m also on the Chartered Institute of Buildings EDI advisory panel. So I had gained a little bit of experience prior to taking on this role. And the role with the Women’s Engineering Society involves leadership skills.

And currently, I’ve developed some events, for example, an event on neurodiversity, and also a couple of free coaching sessions for the Women’s Engineering Society. I’m also- with regards to this role, I’m having to develop a brief EDI questionnaire to go up to the Women’s Engineering Society members. And that’s with a couple of other ladies who are WES members, and also involved in a specialist interest group. And we’ve also agreed to establish focus groups around EDI topical matters such as discrimination, unconscious bias, STEM Returners and other matters with regards to EDI topics.

So this role is particularly important to WES, the Women’s Engineering Society, as it helps to ensure that diversity inclusion is embedded internally in the charity. And also, eventually, externally as well. Hopefully, the EDI special interest group will get involved in perhaps campaigns. But certainly, we started developing an EDI calendar to be aware of- awareness days throughout the calendar year. And I think this was particularly important to me as it’s allowed me to be creative, supportive to others, and also to demonstrate my leadership skills. And I think importantly, to share knowledge and raise awareness of EDI matters with other females of the Women’s Engineering Society.

woman working in construction

I particularly homed in on the topic of neurodiversity

Yeah. I mean, it sounds- I particularly honed into the- you’ve said so much really, in that answer. But I particularly homed in on the topic of neurodiversity, which I find very interesting.

Yes. I’ve raised hopefully awareness, just yesterday organised an event with a couple of presenters, and one of the presenters from that was from the National Autistic Society. And I think it kind of raises awareness with regards to the importance of making neurodiverse people feel welcome, and to get the best of their abilities within the workplace so that they can operate to their 100% potential, rather than at say, 70%. So yeah, I mean, it’s certainly- there was some interesting discussion and debate and q&a afterwards.

And I think one of the things that were raised was in terms of people actually completing an application form for a job. And unfortunately, the case is that many people who have either dyslexia or autism, won’t necessarily tick the box because they might not- they feel that they may not get the job, or they may not have the application looked at. So that’s quite common. And once they’re in the workplace, then they will speak to their boss, or whatever and then hopefully, they will get supported.

You founded Women in Sustainable Construction and Property

That is very interesting. I worked for many years for a video production company, and my boss was a dyslexic and a hugely talented individual, as well as one of the other people working there. So it’s just touching. Yeah, like, imagine the discussions you would have had after yesterday, your Q and A’s. It’s just such a huge topic, Emma, and you founded Women in Sustainable Construction and Property. And you’ve also organised events on healthy buildings, smart cities, again, diversity and inclusion. What do you feel you’ve achieved so far, with this up to date?

Yeah, sure. So I founded Women in Sustainable Construction and Property on my own back in 2011, as a LinkedIn group. And the purpose for this was mainly because I wanted to network with women in the built environment who had sustainable professional backgrounds. When I worked in London, I also set up a steering group with WSCP, which is Women in Sustainable Construction and Property. It’s shortened to WSCP and we organise really fantastic events. And the one that particularly stands out to me was a speed networking event that was organised with students at UCL University. I don’t know how we achieved it around our day jobs, but it’s such hard work but we arranged for 17 professionals from all kinds of backgrounds and managed to get a female electrician to speed network.

And then we arranged for 100 students, including UCL students to attend. And then we also had representatives from seven institutes which had stalls all around. And then we also arranged for inspirational speakers such as Roma Agrawal, who works for WSP, I believe. She’s an associate structural engineer. She presented and also, we got London & Quadrant Housing to sponsor the event. So we went on to organise many events on as you mentioned on healthy buildings and smart cities, and many of these I did on my own when I moved up to Leeds as well. Sorry, back up to North Yorkshire in 2013. And this LinkedIn group’s now has over 1340 members.

And last year, I set up Women in Sustainable Rail around on LinkedIn, because I kind of moved into railistry, and I wanted to see more events on to do with the focus on sustainability. There are Women in Rail, which is a proper organisation. This is just a LinkedIn group. But this LinkedIn group’s growing, men and women are welcome as well to join this and it’s now 70 members. And just this year, I’ve organised events on sustainability and diversity inclusion topics with various organisations from Natural England Network Rail, Vattenfall and Smartworks, and a number of other companies as well. Mainly because I’m passionate about sustainability, and I just want to share knowledge. And I also enjoy networking too.

Okay. I mean, the group’s obviously that’s how you and I came in contact, because of the groups you’ve set up.


So what is your vision for women in construction over the next 10 to 20 year

So what is your vision for women in construction over the next 10 to 20 years, let’s say, Emma?

Oh, right. Well, I mean, many years- Yeah. When I joined the industry, 20 odd years ago, it was rare to see females certainly studying construction. I definitely like to see more women studying construction, sustainability. I’d like to see more women in construction in leadership positions. And I think inspirational female role models can empower women and young girls, and hopefully attracting more women into the industry.

And I’d like to see more successful female-owned organisations in construction, and also see female CEOs of large construction organisations. I think there are many women who are making really huge waves in the industry and a difference because they’ve obviously found their niche. And constructions is a macho industry, some women inwardly may feel a bit of lack of self-confidence or require mentoring and guidance, and a self-belief developing. And I think organisations need to fully support them to develop their optimum and best professionally. And there was a really good cover on women in construction in the CRB’s construction manager magazine in March this year. But I do think there’s a lot more to do in terms of quality, diversity, inclusion, and COVID. COVID-19 hasn’t helped a lot of women, particularly have had to perhaps take a backseat, in terms of family duties, and homeschooling. Possibly some women have been furloughed or made redundant as a result of COVID as well. So that’s kind of set women back a bit as well. And of course, we’ve got the equal pay gender pay gap, which is again, kind of another matter that we also need to overcome, the industry needs to overcome too.

There’s an awful lot to be done, obviously.

Yes. Yeah.

And how do you feel that women can make a difference to sustainable construction, in particular, Emma?

But at least you know, the work that you’ve been doing, and obviously, lots of other women, is already making quite a significant difference. And how do you feel that women can make a difference to sustainable construction, in particular, Emma?

I think you’ve only got to look at some of the rising stars really in sustainability with regards to the building magazine, for example, and the awards over the years to see the female talent out there. And I think that there are more women entering the construction industries through the specialism or sustainability, and it’s certainly needed with regards to the shortage of skills in the sector and the need to hit net-zero targets that the government and industry are asking for.

Women bring diverse skills to the team and they make such a great difference to project teams. And I think women are rising in sustainability roles in the construction property and infrastructure industries. I mean, institutes such as the Chartered Institute of Building, IEMA, and the Association of Project Management- that they- support women on their journey. And I think as well, the London 2012 Olympic Games, Olympic and Paralympic Games include a very diverse workforce and sustainability team of local- was predominantly female, and I was part of that as a venue sustainability manager.

And there are some against females making some great, huge waves. For example, Amie Shuttleworth to name a few, Kirsty Henson of KLH Sustainability, who’s got her own business, Sue Riddlestone OBE and many more. But companies need to encourage career advancements for women, equal pay and opportunities, work experience. Also, a fair working environment as well to shake off any current stigma and change the perceptions in our industry.

Written by: Jackie De Burca

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