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Realist or reactionary?

AGENDA - Ray O'Rourke has reignited the debate about why women are a rarity at trade level on site. His views are sure to polarise the industry.David Rogers reports on his controversial comments and the subsequent fallout

LAST month, the chairman of Laing O'Rourke ? the biggest privately owned builder in the land and the country's fastest growing contractor ? said women didn't fit in on building sites.

Not a man of many public utterances, Ray O'Rourke's comments at a conference in Dublin caused an initial condemnation, forcing him to issue a clarification (right) which was sent to all Laing O'Rourke employees last week.

His views surprised many, because Mr O'Rourke has been lauded as a forward thinker and industry reformer.

But surely the chief executive of a company, which bought Laing for a pound a few years ago, knows his trade inside out and isn't totally out of touch with modern-day contracting?

So, are his recent comments just him calling it like he sees it, fronting up to a truth no one dare speak, or those of a 59-year-old man hopelessly stuck in the past, representing the very reason why so few women choose construction as a career?

In his staff memorandum, Mr O'Rourke writes: 'I am convinced that we will not attract women in significant numbers to the industry, particularly the trades, until site practices, processes and culture radically change.

'It is unrealistic for the industry to believe that manual labour and skills gaps can be alleviated by recruiting women to the construction industry.' As one O'Rourke source said: 'Ray may be a bit oldfashioned, but he's making a valid point. Why would women want to work on most building sites? They are dirty, dangerous and involve back-breaking labour ? that's hardly an attractive proposition.

'Ray wants to improve things and to modernise production techniques so that building is about mechanised assembling rather than humping buckets and bricks.

'Only when that has changed will you attract more women into the trades.' According to training body CITB-ConstructionSkills, the number of women working in the trades stands at just 1 per cent.

Figures for the technical and professional side of the industry are much more encouraging at around 10 per cent, with real progress being made.

But building sites remain the shop windows into the industry, and the public's gaze focused on Wembley Stadium again last week when England's World Cup squad paid a visit to the job.

Newspapers were full of shots of construction workers crowding onto the terraces to catch a glimpse of their heroes. A close look at the workforce revealed it was almost exclusively male.

The same was true during the topping out of Heathrow's T5 ? one of the most forward-thinking sites in history ? when a sea of hard-hatted men attended the off icial ceremony.

A tour round most sites shows that the CITB's 1 per cent figure is probably an over-exaggeration, with women working on the tools still considered a rarity.

The industry is changing throughout the pro fessions, but at trade level, reforms seem to have hit a brick wall.

Women are simply not queuing up for jobs at site level where the industry still has a long way to go to shed its stereotypical image.