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An equal opportunity: Supporting women in construction

With the current talent and skills shortages across the industry, UK construction could really benefit from drawing on an under-used section of the labour force: namely, women. Women today represent just 12.8% of the construction workforce and tend to sit in supporting office roles, like administration, HR or marketing.

Technical and on-site construction roles tend to be overwhelmingly male dominated. The UK has the lowest proportion of female engineering professionals in Europe, at just 5%. Meanwhile, women make up 3% of manual roles, 8% of haulage roles and 12% of professional roles in the industry.

Women could play a vital role in filling key vacancies at construction firms. And with technology changing many existing job roles and creating the need for new skills, now could be the perfect opportunity for construction firms to encourage more women into the industry.

The diversity dividend

Construction firms could gain very concrete benefits from hiring a greater number of women across the business. Other sectors have shown the clear existence of a ‘diversity dividend’: more diverse businesses perform above the industry average in every sector and achieve higher financial returns than their competitors.

Businesses that have employees with a wide variety of backgrounds and characteristics, including women, are likely to have a wider selection of skills in the business. That means that they are able to come up with effective, inventive solutions to the challenges they face. These employees can also help to ensure that buildings meet the needs of a diverse user base.

Importantly, clients are becoming more concerned about the ethical credentials of the businesses they buy from, including their approach to diversity and inclusion. Younger clients especially are more likely to buy from organisations that they believe are doing the right thing, even if that means paying a slightly higher price.

Built for men

Historically (and indeed presently), men have formed the vast majority of the workforce in the construction industry, and that’s still reflected in many elements of the working culture today. The jobsite especially tends to be “made for men”, in ways that might not be immediately obvious.

Toilet facilities might only be provided for men on-site, while signs like “men at work” and “men working overhead” are still common. Women can struggle to find personal protective equipment and safety harnesses that will fit them. Legend has it that the dimensions of a clay brick were designed so that it would fit neatly into a male hand.

Even technical roles can be tacitly geared towards fully able-bodied men. The founder of PlanGrid, Tracy Young, was inspired to set up the company because of her experiences as a quality surveyor on-site. After years of lugging around huge quantities of heavy, inconvenient paper plans, she co-founded a company to provide easy to access digital plans to use on-site.

Issues extend beyond the jobsite to the way that jobs are structured. Some firms might not offer maternity or flexible working, provisions that might have a more obvious impact on women but would equally benefit men.

Negative perceptions

Male-driven working cultures can make construction businesses feel very unwelcoming to women, in ways that might not be immediately obvious. In a documentary called Hard Hatted Women, tradeswomen in the US describe their experiences at work. Although they love their jobs, female workers can constantly face questions like “why would you want to do this?”

This is contributing to a serious image problem for construction. When asked to describe the industry, parents and teachers frequently used the term “not for girls.” Even teachers have a negative response; 62% said that less than one in ten of the girls in their class would be suited to a career in construction. This is discouraging women of all ages from entering the industry – and depriving businesses of talent at a time when it’s really needed.

Opening up the industry

There are many steps that construction firms can take to attract more women into the business. Simple changes to working practices, like cleaner sites and toilet facilities for women and men, will improve accessibility. Using gender neutral language in job descriptions and advertisements will help to encourage more women to apply. Meanwhile, offering flexible working and job shares for both men and women will open up jobs to a wider range of candidates.

Businesses can benefit from creating advocates for women in construction within the firm, including employees at every level up to the leadership team and both men and women. Having women in positions of seniority is important too. Communicating the benefits of a more diverse firm will help to engage all workers in the benefits of and need for a broader range of talent in the business.

For the wider industry to attract more women and girls, it will be important to show both current workers and the next generation the incredible opportunities of a career in construction. Female role models throughout the industry will help to showcase the sorts of jobs available. Schemes like Class of Your Own are also valuable for engaging young people with the realities of working in the industry.

With the construction sector set to transform at speed, firms with a diverse employee base will be more ready to adapt and meet the needs of their users in the years ahead. Construction businesses today have the opportunity to attract women to not only meet their current talent shortages, but make a strong, diverse business that’s ready for what the future might bring.

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