Hidden Treasures from the Archives

We are launching our brand new series on ‘Archives and Collections’ with a piece by Howard Benge about the theme of women in construction as portrayed in an Inner London Education Authority film, part of the London Metropolitan Archives’s film collection.

Women in Construction (1983)

by Howard Benge

It is widely accepted that women are still under-represented in the construction and engineering industries. Nevertheless, there is a big push to break down perceptual barriers to women’s participation within them. Major companies such as Crossrail and Thames Water actively work with young women to encourage them to enter these professions. The Women in Engineering Society has been campaigning since 1919 and, in June this year, ran the first National Women in Engineering Day. Go back 30 years, and the same was being done. Women in Construction was made by the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) in 1983 and can now be viewed at the London Metropolitan Archives.

A teacher working at Battersea StudiosFrom the late 1960s through to the early 1980s, ILEA produced and broadcast educational programmes for its schools. They used a converted school in Battersea to facilitate studios, rehearsal spaces and post-production units. Children and teachers from the inner London schools were involved in the staging, camera work, and performing of the programmes so that they maintained relevance with the target audience. The London Metropolitan Archives now holds the ILEA film collection along with a variety of films and documentaries about London, dating back to the 1920s.

Women in Construction shows women doing a variety of jobs in the construction and engineering sector. They are all at an early stage in their careers in bricklaying, painting, civil engineering and planning.  Some are at college; some have completed initial training and are looking to progress further. The over-arching message is about the challenges and obstacles women face, working in a hard-nosed, male dominated environment that has been this way for hundreds of years.  

The ILEA studio at BatterseaILEA’s target audience for this film was 13-14 year olds in Year 9, the classic time in a young person’s life for choosing subject options and careers. However, it could also be used with older, or younger students, or in any situation where equal opportunities were discussed.

There is no narration, no interviewer-interviewee relationship. It is simply the young women answering questions put to them in a very conversational style, sometimes in a one-to-one setting, other times within a group. 

Issues for women working in construction and engineering are explored. The first questions asked are around perceptions of other people. For example, “What did your family say when you told them about your career choice?”, “What did your friends say…?”. These questions are up on the screen and manifestly part of the narrative. The women reply “They thought it was a joke at first”, “They didn’t understand”, “Now they take it seriously and I’ve got a job”. But they all agree that the reason they are there is because they don’t want to do an office job: repetitive, indoors, boring.

Women in Construction (ILEA, 1983) © Courtesy of London Metropolitan ArchivesAs the conversations develop, they talk about what they do in their jobs, what skills and qualifications are required, and eventually are talking about the inherent sexism in their work place. This topic, or the question posed to them, is not put on the screen as the initial questions are. The viewer is engaged with the subject as part of the natural progression of the narrative.

Samantha, a painter and decorator, says, “You get the mickey taken out of you a lot especially by the older men who don’t think women should be doing apprenticeships. My dad warned me it was going to be hard.”

“Men get right up my nose sometimes, and their attitude towards women full-stop. It’s something I have to deal with.” Sue, a building technician continues. “I have to deal with a lot of sexist remarks, and it goes against the grain, but I have to ignore them because I have a job to do and if I started complaining about it, then I wouldn’t get the job done.”

A teacher working at ILEA's Battersea StudiosThey are all realistic about their job prospects. Lisa, a bricklayer, explains “it’s a difficult market and there are a lot of skilled bricklayers out there.” The overall consensus is that men and women can equally do the work; gender doesn’t come into it. As long as they are qualified and experienced, they should have a good chance and a right to get the jobs. They all have aspirations to go further, become better qualified and get better jobs. Thanks to contemporary professional networking, we have seen that some are now at senior levels within their industries.

Being of the age group this would have been targeted at in 1983/84 I wondered whether it was solely aimed at young women. Were the Year 9 young women taken away to a room to be shown this without any males around? I hope not. I hope it was also aimed at young men, challenging any traditional preconceptions about the future workplace, the message being “You’ll be working directly with women in the future.”


Production Company : ILEA Learning Resources Branch
Director : Roy Marshall 
Researcher : Sue Sandle 
Photography : Colin Fox 
Editor : John Smith

Women in Construction (ILEA/VID/05/03/015) can be seen on the London Metropolitan Archives’ Mediatheque (40 Northampton Rd, Clerkenwell, London EC1R 0HB – 020 7332 3820). Some films can be seen on the London Metropolitan Archives’ You Tube channel. The London Metropolitan Archives Film Club takes place once a month. 

Howard Benge is Development Officer at the London Metropolitan Archives.

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