As chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, Jenny Watson will be in charge of enforcing the gender equality rules that are about to come into force. And given the industry’s dismal record on recruiting women, it had better look out.

Everybody will no doubt be pleased to hear that from tomorrow, there’ll be yet another hoop to jump through for companies trying to win public sector contracts. Under the Gender Equality Duty, public bodies have to show they’re promoting equality between men and women, and this extends to their suppliers. So, contractors may now be asked about their policies on equal pay or flexible working, and if they’ve fallen foul of sex discrimination laws in the past, they could be struck off a tender list.

A good person to ask about the impact of the new rules is Jenny Watson, chair of the government’s Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) since November 2005. The EOC most often hits the headlines supporting tribunal cases on equal pay or pregnancy discrimination, but the bulk of its work is offering advice and information, and behind-the-scenes lobbying.

From 6 April, it will also be enforcing the Gender Equality Duty. “We expect public bodies letting contracts to be asking questions,” warns Watson. “If you’ve had a number of tribunal findings against you, you could find you’re ruled out of tender opportunities. Firms will have to show they’re not poor employers of women, and make sure that internal policies don’t mean women file claims against them. More public bodies will be routinely asking about that, and some, like the Greater London Authority, will go further and expect contractors to have equality policies themselves.”

Contracts themselves will involve wider consultation with future users. “If you’re involved in designing and building, you need to be aware that men and women may not have the same needs in terms of safety or access. If you’re an architect, it’s no good having a beautiful looking building if nobody with a buggy can get into it. Toilet facilities are another big challenge – there are never enough female toilets in any public building.”

It’s unlikely that the EOC will be inspecting every new building, but Watson points out that this is exactly what its sister body, the Disability Rights Commission, does and from October, both will be absorbed into a super-human rights body along with the Commission for Racial Equality. “In most cases, public bodies will not be setting priorities for action on construction,” she concedes, “but if the Department for Culture, or the Olympic Delivery Authority are letting contracts in east London, I’m pretty certain you’re going to want to make sure they meet the needs of female users.”

Watson doesn’t come across as a shouty feminist; she’s pragmatic and sympathetic about the effects of legislation. For example, the EOC is lobbying the government to help smaller companies cope with maternity pay and flexible working. But she has more than 20 years’ experience of campaigning on human rights issues. In addition to her work at the EOC, she’s a director of Global Partners and Associates, the human rights consultancy she co-founded in 2004, and a member of the Advertising Standards Authority’s advisory committee. Until recently she was deputy chair of the Banking Code Standards Board and of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management.

Flexibility is key. It doesn’t matter what else you do, without flexibility you won’t get women to the top

Watson is clear that much more should be done to equalise the odds for women at work. Unsurprisingly, she feels construction has changed more slowly than other industries. “There are far more women in senior positions than there used to be,” she says of industry generally, “but there are still some of the old problems – 30,000 women a year lose their jobs because they get pregnant. There are issues around harassment and there are obviously issues around equal pay.”

For younger women who feel feminism is passé, or for their mothers who may think the battle is won, it might come as a shock to learn that the pay gap between men and women has shrunk only to 17%, compared with 29% in the 1970s.

More enlightened parts of the industry have already made the connection between the construction industry’s skills shortages and its lack of success in recruiting 51% of the population. An EOC investigation into modern apprenticeships in 2005 found that although 12% of girls would consider joining our industry, only 1% of trainees were female. “Where women do come in in larger numbers, in architecture, say, you find they get to a certain level of seniority and leave. Knowing that you’re losing qualified staff would, for me, be a real worry. It takes a long time to train people – why on earth would you want them to leave you or even worse, go to a competitor that will offer them flexible hours?”

But it’s still rare to find a company in this industry that genuinely helps staff to balance work and childcare. Studies by the RIBA and the RICS show that the most common reason that women leave is an inability to fit their lives around the demands of their employer. “Flexibility is one of the key things that helps women get to the top. It doesn’t matter what else you do, without flexibility you won’t get women to the top.”

For all this, Watson says the role of the EOC is not to promote women’s rights, it’s about equality. Flexibility is not just an issue for women: it concerns anybody caring for young or disabled children or elderly relatives, and this will be what brings the greatest changes for construction. One of the biggest changes in the past five years has been the desire of fathers to spend more time with their families. The Gender Equality Duty will give any carer, male or female, the right to ask for flexible working arrangements. “There is a real issue for men in caring roles, to be able to come out at work and say ‘I need to leave at this time to pick the kids up from school’.”

When the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights comes into existence in October, Watson’s role will disappear. She says she is “exploring a number of options”, but one thing is definite: “I’m going to go and drive a camper van round Australia. I’m going to get a combi and go up the east coast for a month, and I can’t wait.”