To celebrate International Women’s Day on 8th March, the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) spoke to Ishrat Sharif, Director and Owner of DPB Ltd, a small construction firm in East London – FMB members since 2013
What led to you starting your own construction company?
“We wanted to provide a service to customers that’s unique. We felt that there was a gap in the market for a company that could provide a complete service – not just the building but the planning, design, advice – the whole package. I originally trained as an accountant but I’ve always had a passion for property, having run my own property portfolio while living in Edinburgh. I typically found having refurbishment work done very stressful, simply because firms were only offering to do so much of a project. My partner Azad had the technical knowledge and I was confident I could run the broader business. Together, we felt that we could manage projects in such a way that we could take the headache away for our clients, by doing it all in-house, but by never compromising on quality.”
It’s unusual to see a female head of a small construction firm. Do you ever encounter assumptions based on your gender?
“It happens. Sometimes it can happen in our office. I’ll be sitting at our back desk working and people will assume I’m the secretary, and will ask for the boss. My name can also inspire a funny response – lots of people can’t tell whether “Ishrat” is a male or female name. I often get called “Mr Ishrat” over email as people assume I’m male if they haven’t met me. I’ve also on occasion had issues with not being taken seriously by potential clients – even now, some would rather speak to a man.”
How do you combat that?
“I’m quite assertive and confident, which helps. When I was working as an accountant, it was in an extremely male-dominated environment – this forced me to be quite a different person. I learnt to handle the assumptions. That experience helped me thrive in the construction industry which is also very male dominated.”
Do you feel like that women can offer something different in construction? Has being a female construction boss ever worked to your advantage?
“Absolutely. Every industry is stronger for having the input of both men and women. There are different approaches, different creativities that they can bring to the table. Also our female clients really warm to the idea of working with a female-led construction firm – I can relate to them easily and tend to better understand where they’re coming from in terms of their hopes and expectations for the project.”
What do you think the major deterrents would be to a female school leaver?
“Construction is an overwhelmingly male industry (90% of construction workers are male, rising to 99% when talking about those working on site) which can be off-putting. However, the more women who join the industry, the more it will appeal to other women. Attitudes are slowly changing but we all need to confront sexist mind-sets whenever we meet them.”
And how do we combat this?
“We need to start right at the roots. At school, we need to teach girls that the construction industry is an environment in which they can enjoy a great career and really flourish. People like me need to show that the old stereotypes aren’t necessarily true anymore. We need to open up the industry so it appeals to a broad range of women – many of whom will have the right skills and attitudes to make a real success of it.”