Michelle Hands - how a podcaster and creative soul manages to also be a successful worker on a construction site (within the male-dominated industry)? Read her story and inspire yourself!
We had an overview of barriers for women in construction, we know how the present looks like, so today I would like us to look more in-depth at one of the wonderful women in the construction industry. Meet Michelle Hands, site engineer with a passion for filmmaking and sharing stories of individuals that break the norm and pave the way for the future generation of children who would like to take up a career in construction (or any other male-dominated industry).
Over the last 12+ years, she worked as a CQA (Quality Assurance), freelance site engineer and Project Manager for some of the UK’s major waste management environmental consultancies and major construction companies. She has a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Geography at Birmingham University and did an advanced professional certificate in construction (City and Guilds) on setting out and surveying at Finchley College.
Michelle has a passion also for filmmaking and telling stories; she is adamant about giving true accounts on what life is like for women in the construction field. She wants to inspire the next generations and with that in mind, she documents the stories of the women she reaches through her Youtube site, her Podcast channel, her Instagram page, and her main Internet page: This Is A Man’s World - She who dares, wins! Just in 2018, Michelle’s pregnancy gained international media attention and great coverage over a picture that she posted of herself, pregnant, dressed up for work on site. It was a powerful photo that portrayed a powerful message to all the women out there, to all the mothers working, showing that beauty lies in the strength within. The photo of herself, with a fully grown baby-tummy that had written over it: “Building two things, at once” took over the world” and started a movement! Now Michelle is invited to large gatherings, just like the London Build Expo (Nov 2019) to be part of their panel and discuss the future of the female workforce in the construction industry.
We have invited Michelle Hands also to be part of our panel and discuss the present and future of women in the construction industry in the UK (and not only) and we had the pleasure of having a one-on-one with her. Throughout the time listening to her, each time she would talk about sharing the stories, empowering and helping other women, she spoke of passion. Truly, you can feel that it is Passion that drives her thoughts and leads her action: the passion of sharing the love of empowerment for the other women, no matter if their industry is construction, science, technology, engineering, mathematics or anything else…
She “fell into construction at the age of 21, when she needed a summer job” and “landed on a role that was Quality Assurance engineer” - that meant “sitting between a client and the contractor and the environment agency and the construction workers on the landfill. Oversee that it was compliant”. She also did job material testing: “working with the soil”, making sure that they reached the approval level. She was 7 years in this job and she worked alongside a setting engineer and became more interested. “Got bored and wanted to learn some more” so she switched to being a site engineer. When she speaks about “falling into this job” she is not far from the truth. Michelle was looking for work that she could do during the summer, to make money, so that “it would allow her to pursue the acting course” - she was interested in filming and acting. After making a bit of money, she traveled to America to “pursue that passion”. She worked every summer for about 8 months, as the job could not be done during wintertime. The other 4 months she was traveling and making films. When she flew to LA to do a course in acting, about a year in, she realized that “acting was not really a passion”. Her passion was film-making and sharing stories, “storytelling”. She started making short films when she came back to the UK - short horror films that went to the festival circuit.
With her return to the UK, Michelle came back to construction and “she realized how unique her story was, and how the girls were not exposed to the industry, and how that’s really difficult” for them. If “they are not exposed, they cannot see these jobs, and they cannot aspire to be within them”, within the women that work there. So her “passion of storytelling” VS. “this crazy world of construction” came along and she “merged the two”. This is how her Youtube channel was born. It allows her to “create videos every couple of weeks, and join those passions together”, coming “full circle” as she gets to continue doing the film-working and be on-site at the same time.
She admits that she would have never done an office job and that she loves that “construction allows you to do both: be in the office but also be outside. I’ve always been into sports, being outside and being hands-on with things and construction allows you to do that. Also, an ever-changing environment. There is no single day that kinda looks the same - you might be doing similar things throughout the day, but there are always things going on, something would pop up and you have to use your brain, it’s exciting, so I love that side of it!” She also loves the fact that it has a social side to it. One gets to work with men, with people from different fields: from bricklayer to the managers. “You get to meet lots of interesting people” - “that’s what kept me in the job”.It is not 100% the work she does, but rather the environment that she loves. The people. The stories.
Even on her website - ShewhoDaresWins.com - she mentions the great disparity between women and men in the construction industry. According to studies, only around 10% of construction industry employees are women - does she notice that in her daily job? Of course she does! She came across ONE woman in construction, while working - and that was on a huge project! Of course, there are women on the construction sites, but she never worked with one before, every single day. “It is difficult because you are in a challenging environment and you don’t have anyone else to talk to or relate to; so that’s why Social Media here is so good because it brought a huge community, from around the world, together. I am feeling like we are less alone”. “In the last 15 years I have felt like I’ve been on my own, and - hopefully - from what I can see, it’s slowly starting to change, which is really positive”.
Michelle also mentions that if she goes on a new job, she will get the occasional comments on being a girl on a construction site. Usually, those are done behind her back. But those who do know her and worked with her, they know that “her work speaks for itself!” She did, however, at the beginning, have an incident: where a man refused to go on a meeting with her or even respond to her email. When she confronted him, it was clear that he disagreed with women being in the construction industry. “We could not move forward with the project, because I was the engineer and he was the architect”. He was well-educated, yet “I guess there is a certain generation that has these opinions. I find that younger generations of guys are much more accepting, and actually don’t care. [older generations] never seen this before so they struggle to accept it”. She challenged him directly and let her managers know about the situation. They were fully supportive, the ultimatum was: communicate with Michelle or you go. She had a lot of support from her peers and her team backed her up.
Some other battles she fought before, were lost when there was nobody there to support her. “If you don’t get support, or the environment is not right, move - change jobs - because it is not worth your mental health, your sanity, your health to fight something on your own. There are plenty of companies out there that are forward-thinking. Sometimes the environment just does not fit!” “I know that is easier said than done, I’m a freelance engineer so I have that ability to move around. No job is worth losing your mind over; I’ve learned that with age”. But looking at her life, Michelle underlines that “it is not about the gender; it’s about the culture”. Her brother started as a pharmaceutical sales rep and now they have the same type of jobs (small difference: he is into motorway work). He also faces issues that make her think that it is not all about sexes: male or female, but about the culture of the people working in the construction industry. Accepting changes is a long process..
Michelle has a lovely boy - Archie - that is only 2 years old. Like any 2-year-old, he is focused on building blocks (construction) and cars. He just loves cars and wants to be a racing car driver. She will not sway him either way. She truly believes in everyone following their own passion. That is why, when we asked her how women can contribute to the construction industry, she stated that they can help “In so many ways… so much can be done by women - bricklaying, joinery - things that in my mind I associate with strength and being a guy’s job, dirty, messy. The reality is that sometimes it’s not. It takes a lot of brainpower to do these jobs as well, not just brute force.” “Every job is possible” as long as someone has passion for it!
“Women have different abilities and attributes. We think a little bit more and are a bit more empathetic,, so things like Health and Safety would be improved on the building sites”. Also Planning - “when you have kids you have limited time and you get more resourceful”. Michelle believes that one must find what their true passion is and follow it - “opportunities are endless!”
“I always say that I am brutally honest, because people deserve to know everything before they make a decision, but it’s an incredibly rewarding industry to work in. You can be paid very well. The UK construction industry at the moment is booming and the potential to make a good living is there. If you are interested, try and get some work experience - work for free and find out what you enjoy. Don’t be afraid of change. Don’t think that if you go into one area of construction you have to stay there, there are a lot of opportunities to move about in different jobs. And… just go for it! It is hard, but it is getting easier. So, if you are passionate about it, you can make it work and you will find as much enjoyment as I have. Go for it but make sure that, if at any point in time, you are unhappy, you have options to move around and find something that is the right fit for you”.
Michelle likes to think big and loves looking towards the future with bright, open eyes and heart. She knows that her side projects are taking over so she is aware that soon she may need to step down from the construction site (her physical job). She does not want to stray, somehow from the topic of women in construction or women in other male-dominated industries. “My passion lies in helping women get into the industry and then helping those that are in the industry thrive rather than just survive. I’ve spent 15 years surviving, and this does not have to be the case”. “Exposing things that I have been through, through industry leaders, so we may have a conversation and help create change. Chatting with other women of the industry, discovering what issues they also have and see if we can help each other; and then inspiring the next generation”.
Michelle wants to do a combination of public speaking, working with companies and sharing stories via Social Media. She is aware of the exposure SM brings and that it helps her connect to other women across the world. She wants to collate that info and relay it to the wide audience. She wants to focus on content production but also at “creating a like-minded community of women”. Michelle thinks big as she says she would like to expand from the construction industry to engineering, mechanical, STEM field, army, firefighters and many more. She wants to create podcasts with people around the world, in order to create a bigger impact on the younger generations. She would also love to write a book on this topic - as she has many funny but also heartbreaking stories to share, but as she states, she is “not naturally a writer” so this may take some time.Meeting Michelle was a unique pleasure and by talking to her - as a working mother myself - I could relate to many of the things she was talking of. We can't wait for men to let us into the industry - we, women, need to empower other women! We need to follow our passion, follow our dreams and make sure that we set an example for the younger generations. We need to pave the way, so we would show them that these things are possible. We need to show them that women, no matter the industry, are qualified and able to work there - as long as it is their passion, their choice! Every job is possible as long as you work for it and do your best. Moreover, by taking the job you will (slowly) start changing other people’s mentality. Fast forward into the future: 50%-50% split men-women in all the industries/sectors would be possible. All we have to do is believe that We Can BE The Change We Wish In The World.