Writing in The Guardian, the Smith Institute’s director Paul Hackett considered how women work in the construction industry.
‘Construction remains a ‘no-go’ area for women’, he said, ‘who make up only 11% of its workforce – but things are changing’
Women are transforming the world of work. The number of women in the workforce has increased by more than 20% over the past 20 years, and today they make up nearly half of the workforce.
More women than ever before are going to university and more are in vocational training. Women now account for 50% of all staff in financial services, 49% of all those working in the media, 46% all doctors, 27% of all police officers and 24% of all judges.
But not every industry is welcoming women into the workplace. As the latest Smith Institute report shows, construction remains largely a no-go area for women. 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.
Occupational segregation has long been an embarrassing hallmark of the construction industry, with few women on site or in the boardroom. As one director of a major construction firm put it: “There are more people on our board called Geoff than there are women.” Prejudice and paternalism are deep rooted, and anecdotes about the macho culture and gender stereotyping are legendary: building sites with no toilets for women, unsuitable clothing, sexist banter, bullying, sexual harassment and outright job discrimination. As if that is not bad enough, the gender pay gap in construction is 23% – wider than the national average.
The Institute’s report is a wake-up call for the industry, which needs to recruit about 200,000 workers by 2020 to keep up with demand. Companies will struggle to find the staff they need if they just carry on as they are. Furthermore, the construction industry is changing and relies less and less on brawn and more on brainpower. Women are just as suited as men – better suited, some argue – to take up employment in tomorrow’s high-tech, multi-skilled building world.
There are other reasons, too. Jane Nelson, the managing director of housing repairs company Mears, says there are clear business reasons to employ more women. She argues, for instance, that many elderly women living on their own would prefer to deal with a female maintenance worker.
“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. Organisations such as Women and Manual Trades and Women in Building Services argue that the culture has to change, not least because the world of construction is itself changing and demands a more skilled and diverse workforce. The CYT has some novel ways of challenging recalcitrant employers. Its Pink Ladies programme, for example, saw women on site wearing pink hard hats and pink high-vis jackets. The Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicianshas also been innovative, offering DIY taster courses for women interested in gaining construction skills.
Some employers are now reviewing their recruitment policies. Bovis Lend Lease, for example, has a long-standing women’s mentoring programme; Wates are now actively seeking to recruit more women; and some third sector organisations, such as housing associations, are adapting their apprenticeship schemes to attract more women. However, good practice is still a rarity.
Construction bosses acknowledge they won’t be able to retain and recruit enough staff without changing the mind-set that women in construction are taking jobs away from men. But they often struggle to see the world differently. As Sarah Davis, chair of Women in Building Services Engineering, comments: “If assumptions are made about women with children not wanting more responsibility, this can preclude them from even being offered career advancement.” Employers need to make more effort. So too do Whitehall and local government, which could legitimately use compliance clauses in public procurement contracts to force construction firms to hire more women.
Many in the industry are pinning their hopes on an expansion of vocational college places for women. The Leeds College of Building is a trailblazer, training 900 women a year. It achieves this in part by ensuring that there are female tutors for all subjects and by reaching out to local schools. Funding is tight, but there is hope that as we move out of recession more resources will be made available for similar colleges around the country.
Women are still woefully under-represented in construction. There are signs of positive movement, but good practice needs 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 underperforms in attracting and retaining members of one half of the population.”
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