How Can Construction Companies Encourage More Women into the Industry?

For many, a job in the construction industry brings to mind images of men wearing hi-vis jackets and jeans lower than they should, but the reality is very different. In 2013 the Department of Business Innovations and Skills produced an infographic that highlighted not only how important the construction industry is to the UK economy as a whole, but also how diverse the sector is as a job market. However, career diversity doesn't mean gender diversity. In fact, according to UCATT, women make up less than 1% of workers on site. If that is to change – and it needs to – UK construction companies need to change. But how?

Current Situation

Ray Bradbury, the best-selling American author of classic novels including Farenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, once said: "It doesn't matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it." In order to understand the kind of impact change has, however, you need a baseline to work from. Real change in the construction industry begins with an honest appraisal of where the industry is at the moment, and it will likely make uncomfortable reading for many in the industry.

According to the latest statistics on women in engineering published by Women's Engineering Society (WES), the UK currently has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10%, while Cyprus, Latvia and Bulgaria lead the way with almost 30%. Even more alarming is the fact that only 9% of the total engineering workforce is female, while only 6% of registered engineers and technicians are women.

The issue is compounded by the fact that so few female students in the UK study engineering and construction related subjects. According to WES, only 15.8% of engineering and technology undergraduates in the UK are female. When compared to India, where over 30% of engineering students are women, it's not difficult to see why there are so few female engineers in the UK. This is not a new phenomenon either: the proportion of young women studying engineering and physics has remained the same since 2012, and the percentage of female A Level physics students has remained the same for over 25 years – around 20%.

It's not just engineering where the proportion of female workers is so low; gender diversity in the construction industry in general is shockingly poor. Women make up just 11% of the entire workforce, and this figure includes many who work behind a desk, often in management or secretarial roles. It's estimated that 99% of workers on building sites are men, and more than half of those women who do work on building sites said they were treated worse than men because of their gender, according to a report by the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians.

Changing Attitudes

With such a small percentage of females working within the UK construction industry, changing the perception of building and construction as a male-only career will require genuine commitment from every area of the industry. However, there are signs that attitudes towards women in the industry are beginning to change. Although a recent study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that the overall percentage of women working within the construction industry was lower than any other industry surveyed, the gender bias over what are considered male and female roles has broken down – to a certain extent.

Katy Dowding, Skanska FM managing director, agrees: "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."

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."

Public Perception

So why is it so difficult to encourage woman to pursue a career within the construction industry? One of the main obstacles is the external image of the industry. Many people still think of an engineer as someone who will fix their car, rather than a professionally qualified person who could be involved in a wide range of technically orientated projects. The connotations that go with the public perception of an engineer are difficult to overcome, and although the industry has progressed enormously in terms of professionalism and career opportunities, there's still a general lack of understanding.

"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."

Regular educational pieces produced in conjunction with careers advisers, schools and parents would go some way to helping challenge the general perception of the construction industry as a male-only sector, and companies should utilise their own communicational channels to help promote gender equality within the industry.

Staff Retention

Encouraging women to enter the construction industry is only the first step in redressing the balance; arguably the biggest challenge of all is keeping women in construction. Presumptions are often made about the challenges women working in the construction industry face, such as sexist comments, unsuitable toilet facilities and ill-fitting workwear, and although these are genuine concerns that many women working in construction have, the reality is more complex.

As part of UCATT's Union Modernisation Fund (UMF) project, Building a Stronger Union, UCATT surveyed female construction workers in an effort to find out more about the challenges they face and to increase awareness of the issues among its male membership. As a result of the survey, UCATT found that:

  • Over half (51%) of women surveyed felt they were treated worse at work because of their gender;
  • The top three problems among those surveyed were: a lack of promotion prospects; lower pay than their male colleagues and feelings of isolation;
  • Four in ten believed that bullying and harassment by managers was a problem;
  • Almost three in ten women were reluctant to complain to their managers about the poor treatment they received from colleagues;
  • A quarter of women in the survey said they had to share toilet facilities with men; and
  • 15% of women construction workers said that they had difficulty finding personal protective equipment (PPE) that fit properly.

Armed with these results, it's clear that achieving a meaningful increase in the retention rate of women in construction will require more than simply adding female only toilets and providing appropriate workwear; it will require a coordinated effort to encourage and support women in the industry, and educate male colleagues about the impact their attitude towards female co-workers can have.

Most women in the construction industry leave within five years, and if that figure is to change, both the image and culture of the industry must change. We need to challenge widespread sexism and bullying; push for better conditions and flexible working policies that allow both men and women with caring responsibilities to work in the industry; and address long working hours, discriminatory recruitment and promotion practices, eliminate the macho culture and improve the lack of family-friendly working environments.

"There is no reason why the construction industry should be any different from other sectors in terms of equality and diversity. Women working in construction have an absolute right to be treated equally to their male colleagues and both unions and employers need to work far harder to ensure that occurs." - UCATT General Secretary Steve Murphy.

Promote Career Diversity

The construction industry offers an enormous variety of different jobs in different places, and construction is arguably the most diverse of all UK sectors in terms of career paths. From marketing and PR to legal and finance, the construction industry offers an abundance of opportunity and diversity. It doesn't matter if you're technically minded, good with numbers or creative; there will be a role for you within the industry.

Once you're in the industry there are so many opportunities available that the possibilities are virtually limitless, and UK construction companies need to do more to promote this incredible diversity. Many women want to travel and explore different opportunities, and construction can help them do that. The CITB Go Construct Careers Explorer is a great tool that showcases the enormous range of specialist disciplines and roles within construction, and resources like this should be afforded more publicity.

Encourage & Support Career Development

It may sound like a cliché, but it's true: a company's greatest asset is its staff. A valued and motivated workforce is the key to success for many of the world's largest and most successful companies, and the construction industry is no different. Making use of your internal labour market to satisfy resourcing needs and fill important positions is an effective way of retaining all employees – not just women.

By encouraging employees to get directly involved in shaping the future of the business and furthering their careers, companies are taking giant strides towards attracting and retaining the best talent. And by offering a broad range of learning opportunities, providing a framework for personnel development and helping staff to improve their technical, interpersonal, problem-solving and decision-making skills, companies will have greater success in encouraging staff – and women in particular – to fulfil their potential within the industry.

Promote Female Role Models

Having something – or someone – to aspire is often all that's needed to inspire change and initiate action, and UK construction companies need to capitalise on this and get better at celebrating and drawing attention to the achievements of women who are doing exciting things within the industry. And it doesn't even have to be people from outside of the business – it can be key influencers from within the organisation itself who have progressed to positions of seniority or who have achieved success in some form or another.

Businesses need to be more vocal about highlighting the work of existing female employees within their own organisations, so that other women – both inside and outside of that business – are made aware of the kind of opportunities that are on offer. By harnessing the power of social media and providing coverage through news articles, influencer marketing and internal news bulletins, businesses have a real opportunity to shine the light on the best in the industry.

Champion Sustainable Practices & Environmental Awareness

Sustainability and environmental awareness are integral to the future of the construction industry, and with zero carbon construction edging closer to becoming a reality, there are more and more opportunities for people who decide to forge a career within construction to make a meaningful and positive impact on the environment. With regards to encouraging women to carve out a career for themselves in construction this is important; numerous studies have found that women rank values linked to environmental concern as more important than men do, and view environmentalism as important to protecting themselves, their families and future generations.

When it comes to caring for the environment, there's a gender difference between men and women, and there's a growing body of social science research to back it up. A recent analysis of Gallup Poll data from 2001 to 2008 found that women tend to take climate change more seriously: They were more likely to say they worried about global warming "a great deal," that they felt it would threaten their way of life during their lifetimes, and that the news media underestimates the seriousness of the problem. Although a generalisation to some extent, there is evidence to show that women view environmentalism as important to protecting themselves and their families; they want to make a difference for current and future generations as well as earning a good salary, and the green agenda is a big hook that could be used more effectively than it is to entice more women into the industry.

The Institute for Women's Policy Research found women are less likely than men to support environmental spending cuts and are less sympathetic to business when it comes to environmental regulation. They also have more positive feelings about environmental activists and are concerned about environmental risks to health, especially locally. For the construction industry to fully embrace environmentalism, it's therefore crucial that more women are enticed into the industry.

Offer Work Experience Placements

Female underrepresentation in the construction industry is not just an equality issue, though. It's widely accepted - particularly in the context of a skills shortage - that construction companies needs to be more imaginative in terms of how they recruit and retain talent, and offering more work experience placements is a fantastic way of encouraging bright young minds into the industry and initiating a sea change at the earliest stages of the recruitment process.

Tony Costello, Training and Development Manager at Seddon Construction, co-ordinates work placements for students from around 20 schools in the Salford and Bolton areas. In 2014, Seddon Construction gave 130 students a total of 4,000 hours of work experience.

Costello said: "We offer new apprenticeships every year and work experience is a good way to suss out some of the candidates first. In September 2013 schools started asking for work experience placements and we documented all the learners.

"When the window for applying for apprenticeships opened in March 2014, we emailed them all to apply. I had word from the sites about what the applicants were like and whether they turned up on time.

"If we have them for a week I know whether they have drive and enthusiasm. We started 12 apprentices last September and a third had done work experience with us."

Offering work experience placements can play a crucial role in the recruitment strategy of small and medium-sized businesses according to Scott Johnson, Director of Chas Smith Group based in Hertfordshire and commissioner for the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES).

"Nearly half of my workforce is under the age of 30 and some of these people came through work experience placements," Scott said.

"They were so talented, enthusiastic and keen to get going that we couldn't not keep them on. They're an asset and as we face a workforce shortage in the sector we need to start at the bottom and bring in new blood."

Scott says giving young people work experience gives employers the chance to weigh up potential new workers.

"They get to know employers and employers get to know them," he says. "As an employer you get to 'try before you buy' and when it's time to recruit apprentices it helps you make a judgement without relying on a piece of paper.

"You can sound out someone's willingness and personality and whether they're a fit with your business, which is especially important to a small business."

Many young people have very little careers guidance, Scott says, and don't know where to start looking for opportunities. Work experience is an excellent way for students to get a foot in the door and build up a network of connections.

"One of the barriers to youth employment is a lack of that network. Work experience creates that network and it takes a lot of the gamble out of offering apprenticeships if you've had them on work experience first."

Final Thoughts

Encouraging more women into the UK construction industry requires more than government legislation and guidelines; it requires construction companies of all sizes to advocate and initiate change. It needs staff at all levels of the business to recognise the importance and value of gender diversity; it needs companies to recognise potential and support career development; it needs businesses to bridge the pay gap and offer women the same opportunities as men; and, above all else, it requires a change in attitude. Of course, providing genuine opportunities for career progression, making more work placement positions available, championing sustainability, highlighting staff achievements, improving working conditions, increasing staff retention rates and promoting a modern image of the industry won't just benefit women; it will benefit men, too.