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Women in the Construction Industry - The Cusp of Change
Posted on Mar 24, 2015

Women in the Construction Industry - The Cusp of Change

During the month of International Women’s Day and the Women in Construction Awards, I thought it would be a good time to draw attention to the issues, challenges and changes happening within the construction industry regarding women.

International Women’s Day (IWD) 2015 took place on 8th March. Annually on this date since the early 1900s, thousands of events are held throughout the world to inspire women and celebrate achievements. With the banner quote of: ‘The story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights’, IWD aims to promote the attitudinal shift in both women's and society's thoughts about women's equality and emancipation. As well as this positive stance on progress, for IWD, the recognition of the longevity and ingrained complexity of patriarchy is also vitally important; particularly with regards to the issues faced by women within employment. Women are still not paid equally to that of their male counterparts and are still not present in equal numbers in business or politics.

Unfortunately, within the construction industry, the sexist employment issues concerning IWD are more present than in most other industries. The UK construction industry employs more than 2.5 million people. Despite the fact that the sector is a major employer and is desperately short of skilled people, women only account for 11% of the workforce – and only 1% of the manual trades. In Europe, the construction industry employs around 14 million people (9.5% of employment) yet most (88%) of the people employed in the sector are male. These statistics seem extraordinary for 2015 where the number of women in the workforce has increased by more than 20% over the past 20 years, and today make up nearly half of the workforce. With the UK construction industry having the unenviable status of having the lowest representation of women and despite the current and previous long-standing legislation on sex discrimination, the industry, unsurprisingly, has an awful track record of equal opportunities. Problems of discrimination, disadvantage, family unfriendly environment and underrepresentation have been raised in a series of industry studies and reports such as the latest Smith Institute report which shows that construction remains largely a no-go area for women. 

As it currently stands, the Equality Act 2010 protects people from discrimination in the workplace. It replaced previous anti-discrimination laws with just a single act of parliament and had the intention of making the law easier to understand and to strengthen protection in certain situations. One of the areas it specifically covers is sex discrimination at work, which was only first legislated against in 1975. This covers all types of discrimination from direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment and banter/jokes that undermine someone’s confidence and ability to do their job. Despite the law, disgracefully, these types of discrimination are often felt by female construction professionals. A very common example of this is the recruitment process. It is far more rigorous than a man’s interview, with questions examining their commitment and professional competence. This type of interrogation is not experienced by male construction professionals. Sarah Davis, chair of Women in Building Services Engineering, comments on this harsh recruitment process and states that: "If assumptions are made about women with children not wanting more responsibility, this can preclude them from even being offered career advancement." One study found that a lot of employers put women’s CVs at the bottom of the pile and concentrate purely on the men’s.

As a recruitment firm, we are very interested in the hiring processes of construction jobs. I chatted to one our senior recruiters on the construction desk here at Blayze who told me that out of the 40 odd candidates she talks to about jobs a week, only 2 or 3 are women. She does not deal with a single female client, highlighting the disappointing fact that there are abysmally low numbers of women in senior roles. I asked our consultant why she felt women do not want to approach construction roles and she replied with “There aren’t even female toilets on site”. This reminded me of a quote I had heard several times from a director of a construction operation with a £250 million turnover: “There are more people on our board call Geoff than there are women”. The combination of these two quotes paint a very ugly picture which depicts the fact that women do not seem welcome either on site, nor in office.

Fortunately, these issues are starting to be addressed. The recognition of sexist discrimination has been brought to the attention of multiple companies and organisations and there are steps being made in the right direction in order to rectify it. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) are one of these companies, who, in order to correspond with International Women’s Day, launched the #SeeMeJoinMe campaign to celebrate and support a more diverse and inclusive construction industry. Similarly, this optimism and recognition is highlighted in ‘The Women in Construction Awards’ which will take place on Thursday 26 March. These awards are in their ninth year and provide a showcase for the brightest and the best female achievers in the housebuilding and wider construction industries. The ‘Class of Your Own’ programme, set up by an architect and a surveyor aims to teach and involve young people in construction careers and similarly, ‘Time to think differently’ is the message from the Construction Youth Trust (CYT) and the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), who are leading the charge to raise awareness and help women access training and employment opportunities.

This recognition coincides with the realisation that there are more people needed within the construction industry and thus employing more women is vital. One in five workers are approaching retirement age and a further 26 percent are between 45 and 55 years old - replacing these retirees alone presents a big recruitment challenge. In addition to this, research by the Construction Industry Training Board in January 2014 estimated that 182,000 extra jobs will be created in the next five years as the economy improves. Thus there is quite an urgent need to recruit to ensure that the industry has the workers it needs for the future. This provides a perfect opportunity to tackle inequality at a time of high recruitment. However, getting enough women to want to work in the industry will be a challenge.

Whilst there is optimism in the air, it would seem that real change cannot be brought about without significant action from the government. There needs to be more concentration on the business case for change and more support for those programmes currently in operation. Culture change is also essential for making the industry more welcoming of women, this also includes making large changes in the recruitment process. Fortunately, some employers are now reviewing their recruitment policies. For example, Bovis Lend Lease, has a long-standing women's mentoring programme and Wates are now actively seeking to recruit more women. However, good practice is still a rarity.

To conclude, women are still miserably underrepresented in construction. There are signs of positive movement, but all the good practices mentioned need to be scaled up and applied industry-wide. As Judy Lowe, deputy chair of the CITB, says: "No industry can hope to excel when it consistently under-performs in attracting and retaining members of one half of the population."

Emily Hickey-Mason
Marketing Executive
Blayze Group


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