Building resilience

Kathryn Ladley writes about her career in construction, her love of the industry and the challenges she has faced as a woman in a male-dominated sector.


One of my colleagues once paid me a compliment and over the years that compliment has been increasingly appreciated by me. She said that she thought I was so resilient, and it gave me reason to consider how I had gone about building resilience.

I suppose that resilience is something that is nurtured and grows over time (if you are lucky). As I approach my 70th birthday I probably have had a long time to develop this quality.


My earliest memories are when I was about three or four years old. We lived in a one-bedroomed terraced house with an outside earth toilet. My father was a bricklayer, but it was before the time of guaranteed minimum wage and winters were bad. We were poor by any standards.

When I was 11, I passed my 11+ exam and was able to go to a grammar school in Leeds. I could only take up this offer because I was awarded free uniform, free travel pass and free school meals. Leeds was 12 miles away from home and I had to use public transport. I suppose this was lesson one in resilience – early morning starts, long bus journeys, travel in bad weather, going to school in the dark and coming home in the dark.

Fortunately for me, my mum was determined that I should stay on at school into the sixth form and she worked hard to look after us and hold down a job. I also had a Saturday job and worked through the school holidays. Although she supported my wish to go on to higher education, she was less than enthusiastic that I wanted to do a “man’s job”.

Early career

So, several years later, I found myself at Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Beckett University) on my first day and, call me naïve, I was gobsmacked to find I was the only girl in a Class of 25 on the BSc Quantity Surveying course. Not only that, I was the first girl to have undertaken a construction-related degree at Leeds Poly and I was the only girl in the whole of the Building and Engineering Department.

It was so hard. Coming from an all-girls convent school to an all-male environment it was totally not what I had expected – maybe it should have been! Three months into the course I was ready for giving it up. This was lesson two in resilience, with me developing a stance that said, “I won’t let them beat me”.

This was the start of my four-year thick sandwich course. During my end of year one industrial experience, I met and subsequently married my husband (who was also a quantity surveyor) at the start of my third year out and when I was just 21.

I think it is fair to say that I worked hard during that time, but life always throws you a few knocks. In my case, in late November of my final year my paternal grandfather died, followed two weeks later by my father and two weeks after that, on Christmas Day, my maternal grandfather died as well.

As you might imagine these events did little to enhance my studies and it was a real struggle to emerge with my degree at the end of the year. I guess that was lesson three.

Graduate career

My year out industrial experience was with Leeds City Council and I was fortunate that at that time LCC had a graduate career path and I was accepted onto that pathway which meant I had a permanent job to go to when I finished my degree, and I was also supported in progressing my professional qualifications. This meant that by the time I was just turned 24 I had both an Independent Quality Surveyors and Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors [RICS] qualification. In subsequent years I have gone on to become an RICS Fellow and qualified as a Project Manager with the Association For Project Management.

I have always loved my job and here I am nearly 50 years later still working in the industry. I have had to fight a lot of discrimination (lesson four) and the concern of “well-meaning” men:

  • The ones who were concerned for my safety, “You can’t do this job, you won’t be able to cope with the mud and other site conditions” – well guess what, I did – I’m still here.
  • The ones who were concerned for public finances, “There’s no point in training a woman because in a few years she will get married, have children and never return” – once again, I did all that and I’m still here.
  • The ones who were concerned for my husband – “doesn’t he mind having a wife who earns more than him and doesn’t it lead to many arguments” – he’s was so concerned, he laughed all the way to the bank.

What has been less expected has been the new discrimination I am seeing now, that of ageism.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am currently an Associate Director with NPS Leeds Ltd, and I am very fortunate that my employer values what I bring to my role and totally disregards my age and gender, but this doesn’t seem to be the norm in other parts of the industry. Does this mean in resilience terms I am still growing? Is this the start of lesson five?

Over the years I have developed other “talents” and I am no longer as painfully shy as I was straight from school. Some would say I am adept at “calling a spade a shovel”, “not backwards at coming forwards” and “do not suffer fools gladly”. These are all “talents” which I have acquired as a result of trying to survive within this male-dominated industry and I have to say, in some ways, I am not really proud of my “progress” in these areas.

Seriously, though, as I said earlier, I have loved my life in construction and still do. I have always had a passion for buildings and hope I always will. I have managed to achieve that elusive ‘having it all’ state – a successful career and home life. I have been married (to the same man) for almost 50 years and have two successful children and two lovely grandchildren. Would I encourage other girls to go into construction-related roles? Absolutely, but I would warn them that it might not be easy and they too might have to develop that degree of resilience.

*Kathryn Ladley, BSc, FRICS, MAPM, is Associate Director – Commercial at NPS Leeds Ltd, President of the Society of Construction and Quantity Surveyors and Member of the JCT [Joint Contracts Tribunal] Council. She won Lifetime Achievement in Construction category at the European Women in Construction and Engineering Awards 2017. is looking to tell people’s career stories as a way of highlighting the range of experience of older workers, not just work-related but life-related. The aim is to change the sometimes negative narrative on older workers and show just how much we have to offer. If you are interested in taking part, please email [email protected]

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