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Expanding the 1% - why are there so few women working in construction?

By Imogen Rowley
Posted: 12th December 2016 08:23
The construction industry is struggling. A chronic shortage of skilled workers and construction management professionals is leaving companies with little choice but to expand their recruitment efforts into the formerly untapped realm of female labour. Women today make up 47% of the total UK workforce, and we are, believe it or not, in 2016; a year which saw a woman very nearly make it to the highest podium in all the land – President of the United States – while women all over the globe made strides in traditionally male-dominated industries. However, recent figures from the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT), show that women make up only 11% of the construction industry workforce (often in design, managerial or secretarial roles), and a shocking 1% of on-site labourers. It’s an international problem, but one felt most acutely in Britain, home to the lowest proportion of female engineers in Europe – only 9%, compared to 25% in Sweden and 15% in Germany. Stubborn stereotypes about what constitutes ‘men’s’ or ‘women’s’ work persist, to this day rendering manual trades such as carpentry, plumbing and, yes, construction, some of the most gender-segregated professions in the world. But do women not want the industry, or does the industry not want them?
Roger Knowles, chairman of a major construction consultancy, recently wrote: “If you take 50 females... and ask ‘Do you want a job in construction?’... Most would say no.” Building magazine then followed this up with a survey that significantly bolstered Knowles’ argument – a whopping 72% confirmed that they would not be interested in a job in construction, citing a variety of reasons from ‘it’s dangerous and hard work’ to ‘it’s macho’ and ‘there are so few women in the industry’. Aside from sexist insinuations in Knowles’ letter that women are simply ‘unwilling to get their nails dirty’, the fact remains that the public image of construction is one of builders’ bums and wolf whistling: Nicola Thompson, communications manager at the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), states how people’s perceptions of the industry are still “rooted in the past”, with “girls immediately think[ing] of bricklayers.” With influential figures such as Knowles making comments about dirty nails and the fact that ‘why are there so few women in construction?’ is still a question we are asking, it is apparent that much more than a ‘zeitgeisty’ PR campaign is needed to alter deeply-set ideas about the gender bias of construction.

The problem starts early – at school in fact. A recent report from the Equal Opportunities Commission declared that 80% of schoolgirls said they would be interested in working in a ‘non-traditional job’, but only 12% of those said that that would be construction. Girlguiding UK similarly released an ‘Attitudes Survey’, which claimed that women still too often feel ‘shut out’ of certain careers. With so few prominent female role models in the construction industry and the widespread feeling that it is a ‘male-only’ career path, only 14% of entrants to engineering first degree courses in 2013 were women. The trend begins at GCSE level, where around half of boys who excel in GCSE physics progress to study the subject at A Level, compared to only 19% of girls. Maths sees a similar picture, where only 11% of girls who did well at GCSE level maths choose to continue their studies, compared to 26% of boys. When various figures cite that somewhere in the region of 100,000 new engineers, scientists and technologists are needed just to replace those leaving the professions, it is a folly not to do as much as possible to attract 47% of the available workforce. Women in the industry need to be championed and celebrated, while our education system should be geared towards making apprenticeships, STEM careers and traditionally male-dominated industries open to everyone.
Even if women overcome their unconscious bias and choose to plough ahead with a career in construction, they are often met with the unsavoury attitudes of male colleagues, employers and clients. Thanks to technology, the argument that construction requires brute, male strength has been rendered largely immaterial. This has been confirmed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), who have deemed that new building innovation has made the requirement for strength inapplicable to most trades. Louise Ward, Policy and Standards Director at the British Safety Council, argues that the introduction of women could actually improve working practices: “Women bring unique skills and talents to work. Their different perspective can also help prevent the macho culture that often encourages people to take unnecessary health and safety risks.” Yet old stereotypes hold fast. The same deterrents thrown at female fire fighters in the 70s and to policewomen in the 60s are now being used with effect in the construction industry – in a survey by UCATT, over half of women said they were treated worse at work simply because of their gender. The treatment they reported was varied – four in 10 identified bullying and harassment by managers as a problem; a third were afraid to complain about such treatment for fear of further isolation.
Yet there are also more practical challenges faced by women in the industry that extend far beyond the tired brains vs. brawn debate. Although it is a problem that sadly befalls all industries today, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reports that on average, women in construction are paid 12% less than their male counterparts carrying out the same role. Other sources put the figure as high as 22%. The gender pay gap in construction is nonetheless higher than the national average. A lack of work/life balance also deters many women (and men) from entering the industry – for some staff, 12 hour shifts on a seven day on, four day off cycle is the norm and makes balancing family and work commitments extremely difficult. Day-to-day life on the job comes with its own hurdles too, with a quarter of women in the survey reporting that they had to share toilet facilities with men and the widespread problem that protective gear and equipment is designed to fit an average-sized man: as many as 15% of women said it was extremely hard to find personal equipment that fit properly. Both the image and the culture of construction must change, as retaining high-achieving women in the industry is just as important as recruiting them in the first place. Current statistics show that the vast majority leave within five years.
All of this is troubling not only because half of the population is currently being shut out of an industry, but because it is a lucrative one. Skilled work in the trades has the potential to be highly paid – a fact acknowledged by 61% of women currently working in construction who say that they chose their current career trajectory based on its earning potential. There is also the option for high levels of flexibility, with 80% of female construction workers working for themselves and able to plan their job around their life and family commitments. The Institute for Public Policy Research recently released findings that suggest that nearly two thirds of new jobs created will be in medium and low-skilled industries – this highlights how school leavers may actually be in a better position studying for a trade rather than going to university, after which there is a well-publicised dearth of graduate jobs and opportunities. Career ladders in construction are also often directly tied to experience, length of service and commitment, making it a desirable career choice for both men and women.

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