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A man's world: How can construction attract more women?

‘Inspiring change’ is the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day on 8 March. The day is a co-ordinated effort to encourage women’s advancement, call for more female representation in the upper echelons of companies and celebrate the social, political and economic achievements of women across the world.

This year’s theme, which aims to shine a positive light on areas that need more action, has particular resonance in the construction industry. Things have changed: the days when sites had more topless calendars than women’s toilets are gone.

Two of the top 10 UK contractors, Laing O’Rourke and Mitie, now have female chief executives - Anna Stewart and Ruby McGregor-Smith respectively. But, as with all aspects of diversity, there is a lot more that can be done.

The question is: how should construction inspire change?

Changing attitudes

Change starts with taking an honest appraisal of where the industry is at the moment.

Attitudes have changed towards women working in the industry. It is now relatively normal to see women on site and the gender bias over what are considered male and female roles has broken down - to a certain extent.

“Now you see someone can be a really tough negotiator who never shouts across the table or bangs their fist and can still do it wearing a nice pair of heels”

Katy Dowding, Skanska FM

“It’s definitely changed in the time I’ve been in the industry,” says Skanska FM managing director Katy Dowding.

“It’s interesting because behaviourally there was more of an expectation for women to behave like men; you’d hear people say ‘she’s really good, she’s tough’.

“Now you see someone can be a really tough negotiator who never shouts across the table or bangs their fist and can still do it wearing a nice pair of heels.”

Bottom of the league

Despite these changes, the overall percentage of women working in the industry remains just 12 per cent according to ONS data – worse than any other industry surveyed.

Click on graphic to enlarge

Gender balance by sector ons data on percentage of women in each industry

Source: ONS

High Speed 2 commercial director Beth West says: “Attitudes do seem to have changed but the demographics don’t seem to have, though, which is quite troubling.

“There is a greater general acceptance of women in the industry; I just don’t think there are that many more women working in the industry.”

So why are there not enough women working in construction?

“The average person still thinks of an engineer as someone who is going to fix their car; it’s not seen as a professional discipline”

Barbara Welch, Mace

One of the problems is the industry’s external image. “We could do a lot better at selling ourselves externally,” Ms Dowding says.

“When I speak to children in schools aged between 12 and 16 and ask them what careers are there in construction, they’ll say bricklayer, plasterer, electrician or something similar.

“At that level there is simply not an understanding that you can have a professional career with good development in the construction industry.”

Public perception

This experience is common. “When you talk to the average person on the street, they still think of an engineer as someone who is going to fix their car; it’s not seen as a professional discipline,” says Mace business unit director Barbara Welch.

“That’s a nuance of the English language rather than a reflection of the calibre of the degree or discipline, but the connotations that go with it are difficult to re-educate.

“The industry has moved on leaps and bounds in terms of its professionalism and the types of careers that are available, but there is still a wider lack of understanding.”

Top 20 contractors UK boards by gender screenshot

Click on graphic to enlarge

This misunderstanding of the industry is not only over its professionalism and the roles within it, but also the general working conditions, a perception that it’s still all drafty cabins with little attention to health and wellbeing.

“A huge educational piece needs to be done outside the industry with parents, careers advisers and teachers, who are hugely influential at those stages in someone’s life when they need to make some key decisions about their future,” Ms Welch says.

Addressing retention

Encouraging women to join the industry is only the first step, however. The next challenge is to keep them in construction, but improving retention is an art rather than a science.

Constructing Equality managing director Chrissi McCarthy says there are often presumptions made about the challenges women face - for example, ill-fitting workwear or a lack of toilet facilities onsite.

“You can’t work 70 hours a week and not see progression, or understand how you can progress”

Chrissi McCarthy, Constructing Equality

“I’m not saying they’re never a problem, but they’re not the reason you give up a career that you’ve spent three years studying at university and then further yearsworking in,” she says. “There are much bigger challenges than that.”

These range from a lack of clear career progression to assumptions about the need to travel or the desire for a change in role.

Ms McCarthy left the construction industry, where she was working as a site manager, to start consultancy and training company Constructing Equality seven years ago.

The company aims to improve equality and diversity in the construction industry.

Clear progress

For Ms McCarthy, the lack of a clearly articulated career path was one of the reasons she left the industry to work in training and developing others. “You can’t work 70 hours a week and not see progression, or understand how you can progress,” she says.

This is important for retaining all employees, not just women.

EC Harris head of business transformation Lizi Stewart says visibility of opportunity is hugely important.

“There is a lack of parity between reactions to men and women wanting to have a work-life balance that suits them”

Beth West, HS2

“Being able to advertise opportunities and let people self-select and put themselves forward is vital,” she says. “Give them the data and the information that allows them to decide whether they want to apply for that role or not.”

Addressing workplace flexibility and gender imbalance when it comes to parenting would make a significant difference to women’s experience of working in the industry.

“Companies need to acknowledge that it is equally ok for men and women to think about work-life balance,” Ms West says.

“There is a [lack of] parity between reactions to men and women wanting to have a work-life balance that suits them and manage their career opportunities accordingly.

“If you want to keep good people, you need to recognise that they sometimes need flexibility, and that’s not a bad thing.”

Good environment

All of this needs to be underpinned by the right culture.

“One of most important things companies need to understand is people don’t often leave companies because of discrimination itself but because of the lack of support they get from their organisation - that’s a problem,” Ms McCarthy says.

“People change and want different things, so having constant employee development can help with some of that drop off”

Katy Dowding, Skanska FM

“You have to offer support alongside diversity training, otherwise you’re just highlighting difference. If someone has a problem you need to be able to help them out with it.”

Creating a supportive organisational culture doesn’t just happen; it takes hard work and a clear vision right from the top of the company.

“You’ve got to have the group board buy-in to drive the change, but then changes happen in a variety of different ways within an organisation and part of it’s a cultural change,” Ms Welch says.

Lifecycle development

Staff support and development is one of the major ways companies can improve their retention, and management teams should also be aware that development doesn’t stop for employees after their 20s.

Ms Dowding says: “Training that goes right up to MD level [ensures] the development continues throughout the life of your career.

“People blanch at words such as discrimination, but we need to move away from the idea this is something that’s helping weak women because they’re not good enough”

Chrissi McCarthy, Constructing Equality

“People change and want different things, so having constant employee development can help with some of that drop off. The ongoing nature of dialogue and development is really important.”

Mentoring is one way to support female employees and show them there is a way to the top. “It’s not necessarily about women having other women as mentors, but women having mentors who can help them identify what their potential is,” Ms West says.

Company leaders should also give some thought to the terminology they use and its potential connotations.

“People blanch at words such as discrimination, which isn’t surprising, but we need to move away from the idea this is something that’s helping weak women because they’re not good enough,” Ms McCarthy says.

“Rather, understanding it’s about a different experience of the workplace is vital.”

Benchmarks vs quotas

For example, it can be difficult to have a sensible discussion on the subject of benchmarking and quotas, as there is still a lack of understanding of the differences between the two.

“When you mention the words ‘gender diversity’ there is a barrier because people hear ‘quotas’,” Ms Stewart says.

“The maturity of understanding of all the different levers you can pull and the complexity of the issue is really important.

“I’m anti-quotas because I don’t think it drives the right behaviours, but data visibility and measuring progress is an important part of the solution”

Lizi Stewart, EC Harris

“Internal benchmarking is really powerful: companies can have complete visibility of their data and understand what their baseline is, what they’ve done to make improvements and see if those improvements are coming through in terms of the diversity of their workforce.

“I’m anti-quotas because I don’t think it drives the right behaviours, but data visibility and measuring progress is an important part of the solution.”

With this data, companies can make an honest assessment of their situation and use the data to make informed decisions on how to move forward.

“The steps are first to get your basic employment rights in order; if they’re not there then don’t touch equality, otherwise you’re going to make the situation worse because people will be unhappier and more divided,” says Ms McCarthy.

“Then you need to make your organisation feel it’s fair. People need to see decisions are made because they’re for the good of the company, not because it’s ticking a box.”

Own your numbers

“Firms have got to own their numbers and in owning their numbers they can start to spot trends and look behind the numbers to understand what is causing the issues to occur,” Ms Welch says.

This takes the solution back to education and inspiration at the school level.

“We’ve got to get into the schools and universities and show these guys the art of the possible, and how inspiring it is to work on a World Cup stadium or lead the Olympic legacy or work on Crossrail,” Ms Stewart says.

“We’ve got to open people’s eyes to the scale of opportunity and how exciting it is to be part of this industry.”

This means competing against other, much better understood industries for top talent.

“If you’ve not had the experience at the executive level, then how can you have the capability to be sitting at board level?”

Beth West, HS2

“Young people are a lot more demanding now in what they expect from their employers in terms of being looked after, the conditions they work in and the credibility of the employer,” Ms Dowding says.

“And we’re not just competing for that talent among our competitors; young people have a choice about what industry they join.

“We’ve got to be as appealing if not more appealing than them, and that’s not just going to happen; we have to go out there and raise the profile of the industry and what we can offer.”

Increasing the pipeline of women coming into the industry is the only way to make sure they are represented at director level.

Ms West says: “It’s a long-term planning issue that goes back to attracting women in the first place and keeping them in the business, so you have a pipeline of women who want to be operating at that level.

“If you’ve not had the experience at the executive level, then how can you have the capability to be sitting at board level?”

Finding inspiration

Inspiring change in the industry is firstly about changing the perception others have of what it means to work in construction.

“The reason I got into infrastructure in the first place, I saw building roads and power plants as a way to develop economies - that’s what was interesting for me about it,” Ms West says.

“I still believe in the power to achieve that, and infrastructure has a massively important role in creating a successful economy, which is why I stay in the field.

“But I don’t think that message gets through to lots of people, including women, and I think if we can get that message across more clearly, it would attract more women because they can see the benefit of what they’re doing.”

Supply chain needs clients to lead by example

Clients have a role in increasing workplace diversity, as leaders by example and by asking questions of their supply chain.

At the beginning of February, Lloyds Bank announced that it is aiming to reach 40 per cent female representation at all levels of management by 2020, while last year fund manager Legal & General said it would vote against any chairman of a FTSE 100 company with an all-male board from 2015.

“When large institutions like that start to make bold statements, companies have no choice but to listen,” says Mace business unit director Barbara Welch.

“There are different ways diversity can be tackled - there are the macro options around benchmarking, but more influential than that are clients and funders asking the question, because it forces boards to sit up and listen.

“The business case is quite strong anyway, but it’s got to be led from the top; it’s not something that happens further down an organisation.”

Ms Welch says Mace’s clients are starting to examine diversity and ask questions about company policies at tender stage.

“It comes through in tender questions about our diversity policies and statistics,” she says.

“It covers a whole gambit of types of questions that are coming through; by asking the question, you’re forcing people to look at the numbers and own their numbers.

“You’re implying that you’re going to judge them on that, whether you actually are going to or not.”

HS2 commercial director Beth West says they don’t ask about companies’ gender policies at tender stage.

“We look at apprentices and training rather than looking at gender balance. It’s something we should perhaps contemplate but in the reality of what’s happening I think we’d be pretty disappointed.”

Readers' comments (2)

  • hamondprojects

    Attitudes have changed towards women working in the industry. It is now relatively normal to see women on site, however the low number in the industry i believe is that the fact that the working hours are not as flexible as other jobs, also traveling is a key role what could be difficult with regards to children if the other partner is also in full time work.

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  • a major issue is still that schools do not know about the various roles in construction & that they are fully possible for women - for instance they probably rate architecture or interior design as possible but do not understand or even know about the various surveying and estimating tasks, let alone the various geotechnical issues that come with civil engineering or the scientific possibilities in engaging with environmental and services work.

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