ONS data and industry surveys show barely any improvement in female representation. But are efforts to shift the balance finally starting to build momentum?
At the end of December 2016, there were around 27 million people in work in the UK.
Of these, 13.6m were men, and 13.3m were women – close to a 50:50 split.
Yet at that same point, there were 2.3m people working in the construction industry, only 296,000 of whom were women – more like an 87:13 split.
If that doesn’t set alarm bells ringing, it should.
The data from the Office for National Statistics show that the proportion of women in construction is barely any higher than prior to the recession, despite the industry’s increasingly desperate need to attract new recruits and draw from untapped talent pools.
And further surveys from contractors and trade bodies show that the gender pay gap is increasing and women are less aware of the different roles that the construction industry can offer – making the case for urgent action stronger than ever.
The headline ONS figures are stark.
In Q4 2016, women formed 12.8 per cent of the construction workforce. Broken down by type of employment, women made up 18.8 per cent of the directly employed part of the workforce, but just 4.2 per cent of the self-employed workers.
While there has been some improvement since the bottom of the recession, gender diversity as of Q4 2016 was only just above pre-recession levels – the proportion of women stood at 12.1 per cent in Q4 2007.
Looking at those numbers, it’s unsurprising that a survey commissioned by housebuilder Keepmoat showed that just 13 per cent of women aged 16-25 would consider a career in construction.
“The salary survey shows we’re at risk of losing women after they’ve gone through training and qualifications”
Lucile Kamar, RICS
Paula Broadbent, director of the firm’s retirement solutions business, says that figure is “no surprise” given the “builders-in-hard-hats stereotypes” that are still prevalent. “The survey speaks volumes that there’s still so much more that needs to be done by [construction] to attract more women into the industry.”
She says the industry’s low-margin structure does little to help investment in training and diversity, with collaboration between larger contractors and smaller firms in particular one of the most effective ways workforces can become more inclusive.
“It’s only through that team approach that we can actually deliver [diversity]. [Contractors] may be on much tighter margins, but that doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t cost any more money to employ a woman.”
Widening pay gap
Further research from RICS also points to an expanding pay gap in surveying, with men on average earning £11,000 more than women in a similar role, according to a 2016 survey. This was up from a gap of £7,000 in the same survey a year earlier.
The data shows that while women start their surveying careers on a par with men – men aged 18-22 earn an average of £22,937, while women of the same age were on £23,150 – men earn significantly more as surveyors move up through the age brackets. Men aged 36-45 are on £10,000 a year more than women, while the salaries of male surveyors aged 46-55 are more than £13,000 higher than their female peers.
RICS equalities manager Lucile Kamar says this is a reflection of more men in leadership positions across the profession, with fewer women sticking with the industry as opportunities to progress become more limited.
“It means we’re really at risk of not only failing to attract talent from diverse backgrounds, but also losing them after they’ve gone through all the training and qualifications,” she says. “The income [data] proves that surveying is a profession that is attractive and pays well, but we need to seriously think about how we both attract and retain people from diverse backgrounds.”
She adds that one of the best ways to do this is by championing female role models, particularly in management roles, to make sure the message that women can be leaders in the construction industry is heard. That is echoed by the findings of Keepmoat’s research, too.
Highlighting the opportunities
Keepmoat’s survey was conducted by OnePoll and interviewed 1,000 adults aged 16-25, 800 of which were female and 200 male.
Keepmoat survey 16-25-year-olds graphic
The initial data is admittedly damning: 56 per cent of respondents were surprised to learn that a high proportion of women are hired at executive, manager and director level in construction. What’s more, on hearing of the opportunities available for women, 72 per cent of all respondents said the industry needed to be doing more to highlight it.
“That screams out to me why there’s a definite need for us to better engage with younger women, and be able to highlight to them what the career opportunities in the industry are,” Ms Broadbent says. “Once women had learned about the opportunities in management and could see the diverse roles available, [construction] immediately became more appealing to them.”
“If you start to put diversity into the workforce, you can see results”
Paula Broadbent, Keepmoat
And that is borne out by the numbers: after completing the survey, 45 per cent of young women said they were more interested in a career in construction, up from just 13 per cent beforehand.
And when asked why, 52 per cent responded that they felt “learning about women in management” made construction more appealing, while 53 per cent said knowing that diverse roles were available was a major factor.
But what’s the best way to get businesses to buy into promoting this?
Ms Broadbent says the business case for having a diverse workforce “speaks for itself”.
She says Keepmoat runs outreach schemes to young people from diverse backgrounds, particularly to attract apprentices, and she says by doing so the firm has increased its staff retention significantly.
Retention rates in Keepmoat’s apprenticeship schemes have increased from 75 per cent to 98 per cent since running these initiatives, and she adds that 27 per cent of apprentices in the firm are now women – compared with an industry-wide average of 9 per cent.
“If you start to put diversity into the workforce, you can see results – increased productivity in particular,” she says.
The key message from the statistics and the surveys is that more needs to be done, with construction facing an ongoing battle to retain its best and brightest women.
But with more firms realising that diversity can help improve productivity, innovation and staff wellbeing, there are signs that things are starting to change.