ALICANTE. Alicante-born engineer Cristina Ávila, responsible for the Risk Prevention and Innovation departments at construction company CHM Obras e Infraestructuras, is living proof that some glass ceilings are no match for a hefty dose of female concrete. This young woman heads two key departments in one of the province’s biggest construction companies, a family-run enterprise with a turnover of 90 million euros in a traditionally male-dominated sector. However, as Ávila says, things are changing.
“I’ve never felt that I’ve been treated differently because I’m a woman”, maintains the CHM manager. “In any case, I suppose to avoid being misinterpreted, the men working on the building sites I supervise are even more polite to me than they would be if I was a man”, she laughs. We’ve just celebrated a day that defends women’s rights, much of it focusing on the working environment, and Ávila is the perfect example of what can happen when a company values an employee for their skills and not for how they are described on their ID document.
The head of R&D at a company that has been standing out precisely for its contributions to innovation in the sector has spent her entire working life amongst beams and bricks. “I started studying Public Works and then I went on to study a Master’s in Risk Prevention”, she remembers. “That was when I went to CHM as an intern, six years ago, and I’m still here”. Ávila praises how the company she works for, owned by a male-dominated family clan and operating in a blatantly masculine sector, has promoted her according to her worth in a relatively short space of time.
“The truth is that the fact that I’m a woman in a sector like construction isn’t something I think about in my everyday life”, she admits. “I do my job, I give instructions to both men and women, and everyone accepts it as a matter of course”. At CHM, she emphasises, “I’ve had loads of opportunities for personal development, regardless of being a woman”. Over time, she has gradually made her mark and now “I feel valued”. Her case, in fact, isn’t as extraordinary as it might seem in other people’s minds: “there are more and more women with responsibility in this sector, site supervisors, surveyors, middle management, etc…”.
Obviously she has experienced misogynistic incidents, but she doesn’t let them bother her. “Let’s see, the first time I set foot on a building site I was 18” she explains, “and I was surrounded by men aged between 30 and 40. Of course I noticed they were staring at me” she admits. But, at least in her case, this hasn’t been the norm. After starting as an intern, she began to rise through the ranks until she became the head of her department, which controls issues such as quality, environmental topics, workplace risks and innovation. During a normal day, she might have to “visit a building site, advise the bosses, supervise product development… it’s a very varied job” she says.
But, as everyone knows, CHM doesn’t only build residential homes, a sector that’s on the rise at the moment in Alicante and in which the business owned by the Martínez Berna family has an excellent reputation. Its core business has always been road building and maintenance, and Cristina Ávila has spent a lot of her time treading tarmac. “We have a calendar of active works in the department, I visit roads, works, manufacturing and extraction sites, quarries, service centres and so on”. The public works sector is “a little slow” at the moment, so “CHM is focusing on maintenance and private construction, with four projects up and running at present”.
Her department is also outstanding for its constant innovation work, which has contributed some very interesting lines of action to the road construction sector. To date, CHM has completed eight R&D projects related to climate change, sector modernisation and the move towards more sustainable materials. Ávila is the woman at the forefront of this department. “We’re researching new materials and new ways of thinking about construction”, she emphasises.
For example, they have created a cream-coloured reflective road surface that reduces the temperature of the ground and contributes towards lowering the effect known as ‘heat island’, which raises the average temperature of large population centres, precisely due to the action of the tarmac and the vehicles travelling along it. Or the Life Cersuds project, which makes road surfaces from ceramic tiles of low commercial value in order to reuse rainwater in urban environments. They have also invented another ‘noisy’ road surface enabling pedestrians to hear the approach of electric vehicles, which make less sound than combustion vehicles, as well as a concrete for railway lines that dampens the vibration made by trains as they travel through urban environments.
We’re reluctant to believe that Ávila hasn’t had a bad experience to tell us about (a ‘hey little lady, let me do it’ moment) in such a male-dominated sector. We ask again at the end of the interview, but she gives us the same answer. “At least in the environment I’m working in, there are no problems with women“, she says. “We visit building sites, we do audits, and no man has ever complained that a woman is telling him what to do. I think they respect me more than a man so there are no misunderstandings”.