Women have made some fantastic in-roads into industries that have historically been dominated by men, but despite this, the gritty world of construction has remained a man's world. In fact, with under 10 percent of the industry made up of females, construction is still considered a daunting environment for women to enter. But with the appointment of its new president, the Chartered Institute of Building is breaking new ground - in more ways than one.
A pioneer in construction management in her home country of China, Li Shirong's work spans academia, industry and government and reflects her strong belief in the need for sustainable urbanisation. As a member of the CIOB since its early connections with China (and as such regarded as a major factor in its growth there), Shirong is keen to use her term to ensure that international communications remain high on the agenda. "As the world becomes smaller, it's easier to share experience about how to make the best use of our resources. But the world is still challenging - we need communication and collaboration internationally, particularly during the current economic crisis," she says.
Her appointment is certainly an important milestone for the 175-year-old organisation; as well as being the first female president, this is the first time that the CIOB has selected someone from outside of the UK to take on the top role. And while Shirong is no stranger to the issues presented by the CIOB's core market - having studied in Europe and through her work with the institute, she is well aware of the problems faced by the UK's construction industry - she is keen to use her presidency to foster a more international approach.
"Communication is so important in terms of sharing experiences and creating new opportunities, so this is something I really want to concentrate on," she says. "I think it is exciting but also challenging work for both the CIOB and myself. We have members around the world, and I think to have a president from outside of the UK will help bring a different viewpoint and help encourage a dialogue of communication between our various members in the international environment."
Growing Chinese influence
One such area of focus is particularly close to her heart - that of the development and growing influence of China. "China's economic development has produced a building boom of a scale not seen in modern history, and it is important that China learns from the experience of the West," she explains. "However, because China can build in technology at an earlier stage of its infrastructure, it is also able to incorporate previously untried environmental innovations and ideas. Therefore the West can learn much from China, too. This situation underlines the acute need for a two-way exchange of ideas and experience."
It also highlights the wisdom of the CIOB's latest appointment. Shirong's strong connections with her home city of Chongqing - now regarded as the world's largest city - certainly provide her with experience that will be valuable to all CIOB members. The city is making huge investments in urban construction, has a fast-growing population and a large construction workforce, and Shirong has played a central role in its development in recent years. As such, she is perfectly placed to advise on the various challenges presented by rapid urbanisation - with sustainability chief amongst them.
"Sustainability needs to be a major focus of our discussions as an industry," she suggests. "I always tell people the city is a museum of buildings - that we don't just build buildings, we create communities, influence society, stimulate economic activity - and I think our members should be very proud of that; however, with that comes a certain responsibility, and the need to focus on sustainable development. Construction is an incredibly important sector - particularly for those countries that are going through rapid urbanisation."
The related concepts of conservation and maintenance will also be key areas of focus for Shirong in the coming months. "Conservation is a comprehensive process and requires a lot of knowledge," she says. "You need to do a lot of investigation before making a decision on whether to conserve or demolish. Do you conserve the whole area or one single building or even just a part of the building? Is a historically significant but dilapidated building worthy of repair and restoration, and if so, should you use traditional methods of building that are true to the spirit of the building or more efficient and cost-effective modern methods? These are big decisions."
Which leads us back to Shirong's core competency: construction management. Looking at urbanization in such a holistic way really requires an integrated approach between many different stakeholders - between architects, developers and planners, local governments, environmental groups and suppliers. There are a lot of different constituencies that all need to come together to really work on making sustainability a realistic goal. So what can be done to improve the way that these different groups and types of stakeholder work together?
"It's simple," she says. "Management is about dealing with people. It's about leadership. This is why I always say that the CIOB is a good forum for talking about construction management; we should be working together in a partnership. The CIOB is really trying to show the value of conservation, linking it to sustainability through a series of seminars and events; we're trying to start a dialogue about the value of conserving your heritage. We're very much embracing the knowledge within our membership, and using those members to spread the word and show the actual value."
Role of tourism
Part of that value is, of course, in the growing role tourism plays in emerging economies. Again, Shirong uses the UK as an example. "For many overseas visitors, tourism in the UK is actually about coming to the country and experiencing the culture and the heritage, and if you sacrifice that then you actually sacrifice quite a bit of your economy. There are lots of countries out there that have a strong cultural identity, and keeping that is important for those economies."
Shirong has certainly come a long way since her first job labouring in the mud of a wheat farm at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution 30 years ago, but symbolically, she is still breaking new ground. Modestly, she puts the achievement within a much wider context. "I am just a normal person from China," she says. "For the institute to trust me and elect me is a big thing, for both myself and my country. I will never forget my daughter's reaction to the news. She said that this was the most important thing in my life, as it shows that as a professional I got to the top. But this post really isn't about me. It's about changes in China, and changes in the attitude of the industry. This couldn't have happened 30 years ago, under the planned economy. Through the open door policy and reform, we changed - to be able to compete in an international society. It's an historic achievement."
Li Shirong began her working life on a wheat farm, mixing fertile earth from the surrounding mountains into the sandy soil towards the end of the Cultural Revolution. When Chinese policy changed and young people were allowed to take examinations to enter universities for the first time in over a decade, Li Shirong first studied civil engineering (her father’s profession) before going on to become one of the first in China to study Construction Management, a field in which she later became a professor.
In 2003, the government of Chongqing (a region of 32 million people) asked her to help in its modernisation process. She became vice-mayor of the Shapbingba District, leading a team to create entirely new ‘university town’, relocating farmers and building around 10 universities for 80,000 students.
Shirong was only the third Chinese national ever to join the CIOB and has encouraged membership in China ever since. She has also been instrumental in joint schemes between the CIOB and the Chinese construction industry – currently involving training and is an ambassador to the Chinese Ministry of Construction.