In April 2001, Simons Group boss Paul Hodgkinson used the pages of Building to make a bold pledge: that 50% of his staff would be female by 2011. It's five years on, but is he halfway there? Photographs by Julian Anderson

6 April 2006 is a historic date for Simons Group. Five years ago, on that day, chairman and chief executive Paul Hodgkinson declared in the pages of Building that half his 1000 employees would be female within 10 years - an ambitious target in construction. At the time, only 13% of the Lincolnshire contractor's staff were women and most were in the usual low pay ghettoes of administration and support. So, halfway to the 2011 target, what's the percentage now?

"We've not done very well on the numbers," admits Hodgkinson. "We've certainly not got up to 25%; we're nearer to 20%. I've been disappointed by the amount of new recruitment and I think it would have been easier if we were London-based. But we've made some big steps. I think that we have cracked the eggs even if the omelette isn't cooked yet."

Since 2001, Simons has recruited 114 women and 46 have left the company. Nevertheless, says Hodgkinson, the groundwork has been laid. Women are better supported thanks to a mentoring scheme and networking events and workshops. And to compensate for the difficulty of finding female candidates for the technical jobs, Simons has adopted a policy of training women who are in admin and support roles. Inga Neimaniene, hired as a receptionist for the group office in London is also a qualified CAD technician and now she spends half of her time on design work. Nine women are attending technical college courses ranging from BScs in construction management to HNDs in surveying.

At director level, Simons is closer to the target. There are two women on the seven-strong board, not far off the golden 50%, and several more in senior positions in traditionally male fields such as surveying. "There's a tendency to pick from a largely male, white construction-based environment. That's the culture we were trying to change," Hodgkinson says. "It's letting people know it's OK to choose people who don't fit that description."

One of those on the board is non-executive director Sandi Rhys Jones (pictured bottom left), a management consultant tasked with improving Simons' gender balance in 2001. She has noticed an improvement: "It's very good to see more women getting to positions of influence, so you get to meetings and it's not just me and the chairman's PA," she says. But while she'd like faster progress, she rejects the shallow quick fix.

"You don't get the numbers of women up by just going on an aggressive recruitment campaign and saying, ‘I'm going to appoint 10 more female QSs.' It's more important to have a good working environment and encourage people within the business," she says.

Rhys Jones started with networking groups to tackle the isolation women can feel working in male-dominated, geographically disparate companies. At her breakfast briefings, women from around the company give talks about their work. "It's interesting for other people. The audience thinks, so that's what Jo does. It's also a training ground where they can learn to present and become more confident."

Is this political correctness gone mad? No, says Rhys Jones. It's good business. "It's not just groups of moaning minnies. Together, they can identify and contribute significantly on business issues such as where the retail market's going or how to attract more young people."

Evening out the gender balance also means Simons more closely reflects the profile of its retail clients. It has even involved them in a mentoring scheme, which Rhys Jones says has improved relations. Key resource manager June Harvey is one of five women at Simons who was paired with a mentor from a client, in this case Boots. "It's been good to talk to someone who's not entirely in Simons' environment and can challenge me or present a different perspective," she says. Harvey has completed an MBA and worked on secondment to the chairman's office on business strategy. She also represents Simons as a director on the board of a training and development company set up with local partners.

Human resources director Fiona Guthrie (pictured previous page, bottom right) joined Simons last year and she is trying to up the numbers of female recruits by adhering to a 50:50 gender split on Simons' graduate scheme for QSs and by recruiting according to people's competencies rather than direct experience. Last week also saw the launch of a flexible working scheme for all employees, male and female. Some barriers to women's advancement are more intractable, however. "This is a business where there's a fair degree of travel required, which is often more difficult for women or people in the primary carer role. We're giving more thought to flexible working for people on site."

I’ve been disappointed by the amount of new recruitment and I think it would have been easier if we were in London

If you want a thing finished, get a woman to do it

But why bother doing all this? In his 2001 manifesto, Hodgkinson said women tended to be "better at finishing things off, juggling lots of different issues, and helping the team to work better as a whole". Apart from the (benignly) sexist overtones of this stance, does it add up? He says it does.

"There is no doubt that by altering the balance we've seen a significant improvement in the output of the group," he says. Guthrie's arrival in previously all-male directors' meetings has "significantly changed the way they behave. Competition has dropped and application to the task has improved. She is good at pointing out when we've fudged issues and getting us to solve problems instead of competing. The team does work better."

The group did a major IT overhaul last year and Hodgkinson attributes the project's success to, well, the presence of women. Paul Davis, director of information and management systems, agrees. "Women are much more dogged about getting things right, they pay more attention to detail," he says. "And when the chips were down, they rallied round much more."

Davis believes balance is important. He sees more conflict in single-sex teams. In six years with the company, he's noticed the difference women make. "Their networking skills are amazing. Women have no problem with picking up the phone and talking to you day or night. There's a lot more bravado with men. General male macho culture says that if I've got a problem I've got to fix it. Now it's ‘we've got a problem, how are we going to fix it?'."

All agree that women-only events can cause resentment among male employees, but Rhys Jones says there is no getting round the fact that women in non-traditional roles benefit more from single-sex courses and points out that men have also benefited from initiatives such as flexible working and the company-wide expansion of breakfast briefings and the mentoring pilot scheme.

Hodgkinson insists there has been no positive discrimination - it's illegal, for one thing - but that Simons does "positively support" female members of staff and the senior women deserve to be where they are. "There is no doubt in my mind that they are extremely good, it's not just about being politically correct."

And he's also feeling optimistic about meeting the 2011 target: "I'm still aspiring to get there. When the article was written, it was more of a wish but now I would say we've got a much stronger chance of succeeding."

Paul Hodgkinson with some of his female employees

Who's who

1 Katrina Forster

Started In: 2003 initially in an administration role, progressed to a trainee technician and then on to quantity surveying.
Studies while at Simons: Recently completed BTEC national certificate in construction, due to commence BSc in construction and commercial cost management in September
Now working as: Assistant quantity surveyor

2 June Harvey

Started In: 1989 as graduate management trainee
Studies while at Simons: Awarded master of business administration with distinction in 2005
Now working as: Key resource manager

3 Sheila Judd

Started In: 1991 as photocopy clerk
Studies while at Simons: HNC in business and finance, part-time BA in business studies at Nottingham Trent University
Now working as: Marketing and events co-ordinator

4 Joanne Smith

Started In: 2002 as assistant QS
Studies while at Simons: Completed part-time BSc in quantity surveying and construction cost management last year, sponsored by Simons
Now working as: Project QS

5 Rosemary Fieldson - Senior project architect

Studies while at Simons: Completed RIBA qualifications at Simons Design, now writing up a part-time PhD in sustainability for retail architecture sponsored by Simons
Commenced as: Did work experience in 1993 as an second-year architecture student and kept coming back. This most recent stint has been seven years since March 1999
Now working as: Assistant QS