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Building Perceptions: Women in Construction

Mike Plaster
Tuesday 27th February, 2018

Construction and engineering are traditionally male-dominated industries, but with the current skills shortage, will women’s under-representation be detrimental to the long-term health of the industry? Marshalls’ latest recruit, HR Director and first female member of the executive team, Susie Fehr, discusses why it’s time for a very different way of thinking and considers how the industry can become more inclusive and diverse.

While gender diversity in the construction industry has seen something of a small improvement since the 1980s, the number of women in the vastly male-dominated sector is still nothing to shout about. Such is this gross misrepresentation of women, figures show that they account for just 11% of the construction workforce – with the Office of National Statistics deeming the number of women employed as roofers, bricklayers and glaziers to be so few, it’s immeasurable[1]. Additionally, the UK has the lowest number of female engineers in the whole of Europe[2].

Making that change

With the current skills shortage[3] in the industry and the fact one in five workers will soon be of retirement age, something has to be done about poor take-up and retention rates. After all, the construction and engineering industries play a crucial role in our country’s prosperity.

The industry is in desperate need of women at senior levels, or within the project development team, if it is to ever benefit from a more balanced culture. But why do so many women overlook the construction industry and not even consider it as able to provide a rewarding career path for them? Argument would have it that they’re put off by the aggressive banter and wolf-whistling stereotypes for which male construction workers are so well-known, and find themselves discouraged by the treatment they assume they will receive on the job. But women working in the industry would attest that this is a supposing and outdated viewpoint[4], challenging the perception that it’s a ‘man’s job’.

Government and industry-backed initiatives, like #NotJustForBoys, which encourages more women to enter traditionally male sectors, and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ drive to get more women into construction roles, do create awareness of the situation. Meanwhile, the engineering sector has seen slight improvements following the introduction of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) into school and college education.

But with employment minister Esther McVey announcing that a possible 12 million new job opportunities will arise in areas including engineering and construction over the next decade[5], collectively, we need to be pre-empting this and making moves to capitalise on it.

Changing perceptions through education

While it could be argued that the overarching problem is that women simply don’t want to work in construction, let’s counter that with the notion that for generations, the correct education and training sessions simply haven’t been in place in schools or further education. The answer to improving gender diversity in the industry lies in creating appeal around its career opportunities, and changing perceptions that are entrenched in the past.

There is an overwhelming need for professionals to work with schools and career advisors to highlight the opportunities across a contemporary construction sector and really demonstrate how diverse the industry should be and inclusive of gender, age, race and background.

The education system needs to teach boys that women can provide just as much insight and thought to a project as men, and further the approach towards problem solving and communication skills. By the same token, teaching should also dispel myths and stereotypes for girls, opening them up to the prospect of a career in construction or engineering. And colleges specifically as part of their apprenticeship drives should actively promote these opportunities, along with the companies they’re working alongside, to women. Each gender brings totally different skillsets to the industry, and schools should be considering – and presenting to all students – the fact that the industry is a viable solution for prospects and careers.

This isn’t something to simply work towards – it’s a necessity. If the industry is to balance its requirements then it does need to anticipate and provide for women who would like to have families. Maternity and childcare benefits need to be fine-tuned if the industry is to appeal to women. It currently only offers the legal minimum[6], lagging behind other sectors which now offer attractive packages that afford a lot more flexibility for workers.

Small steps and giants leaps for the industry

However, the industry and government are pulling together to move us in the right direction. Specialist recruiter Randstad CPE has predicted that women could potentially make up a quarter of workers in the UK construction industry by 2020[7]. That’s dependent on the right cultural change of course.

Earlier this year, skills and equalities minister Nick Boles appointed five women and three men as trustees of the Construction Industry Training Board – a welcome move, making it the first non-departmental public body to have a female majority.

If these predominantly male industries are to thrive in years to come, it is imperative that they embrace a balanced and diverse culture. The genders bring very different qualities and traits to every project which, combined, make for far better end results and productivity. The bottom line in this discussion, however, is simply that whether an employee is male or female, everybody has the right to feel respected and dignified at work and we look forward to a time when ‘women in construction’ is no longer a topic for discussion – simply because it’s the norm.

Key points to consider:

  • Recruitment is of course an issue, but it’s equally as important to be proactive in retaining existing talent. Lack of opportunities and promotion prospects are some of the reasons behind women leaving the industry, and there’s the need for better incentives and benefits – buying and selling annual leave, for example.
  • How can we encourage more women into construction and engineering to place them in the position of role models to inspire the next generation? Female role models are sorely lacking, and it’s important that the industry sends out a loud and clear message – that women can be and are holding successful careers in construction. Should the industry consider coaching/mentoring for emerging talent?
  • The industry should be creating more awareness around the annual Women in Construction Awards, and other similar ceremonies, that celebrate the most exemplary women in construction and engineering.

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