Last reviewed 1 November 2017

With construction being notoriously male dominated, Dave Howell asks what it would take for this sector to become a template for gender equality that other industries could follow.

As one of the most male-dominated industries, construction has often been criticised for its lack of opportunities for women. This is changing. According to research carried out by Randstad Construction, women will make up 20% of the construction workforce by 2020. But are these changes occurring fast enough to ensure the construction industry remains sustainable and profitable over the long term?

Owen Goodhead, MD of Randstad Construction, Property and Engineering said: “Many construction companies have realised the value of skilled female workers and are actively recruiting and supporting women. A number of national campaigns are also helping to get women into the industry and there has been a significant and positive change in attitude in the last decade.”

In addition, the number of women in senior roles across the construction industry has continued to rise from 6% in 2005 to 16% in 2016. However, looking beyond senior management roles, the reality is that, for example, female architects who used to account for 19% of all women in construction in 2005, now number just 10%. This is partly explained by the growth of female professionals in other sectors. This is changing with the Not Just for Boys campaign run by Construction Youth, taking practical steps to change gender stereotyping in many industries and sectors.

The Smith Institute in its report #notjustforboys Women in Construction concludes: “Clearly the poor image of the industry is also important. Professor Barbara Bagilhole identifies this, along with discriminatory practices that prevent women from getting jobs in construction. She calls for a shift in the culture of management and sets out the need to challenge the idea that women in construction are taking jobs away from men. This is a particularly important point when the pressing need is to recruit in order to both replace those retiring and to fill the anticipated shortages driven by expected growth in jobs.”

Current situation

What is clear is that more women will have to enter the construction industry to avoid a skills shortfall that would have a damaging impact on the wider economy. With the Government committing new resources to build more social housing by 2020, women will need to see construction as a practical career option. A recent report from the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) states that the construction industry must recruit 35,740 people a year to meet the country’s needs up to 2021.

And Brexit can’t be overlooked as a potential watershed moment in the UK’s construction industry. Of the current 2.6 million workers in the construction industry, 12% are estimated to be from overseas. Couple this with 19% of the construction workforce retiring over the next decade, it is plain to see that a hard Brexit would mean a massive shortfall in skills across the construction industry. In its recent “Talent Scale” report Arcadis estimates a shortfall of up to 214,500 workers could be a reality.

Senior associate at Weston Williamson & Partners, and co-founder of their equality group women@westonwilliamson, Raffaella Rospo, commented: “We should perhaps move away from questions like ‘do women really wish to build a career in architecture or construction industry?’ and ask instead, ‘how do we make the working environment right for women to grow professionally?’ With today’s technology, flexible and remote working is easy and should be encouraged; return-to-work schemes should be commonplace so that everyone can have a better work/life balance.”

On site

Monika Slowikowska, head of one of the very few construction companies led by a woman, Golden Houses Developments, spoke with Croner-i Construction.

In your view why has the number of women in construction stayed stubbornly small?

“When analysing the problem of why there are so few women in construction, we cannot neglect psychology in our assessment. It is simple: this industry does not match the stereotypical definition of being a woman.”

“Most females working within the industry struggle with remaining true to being a women. Every day, we have to be tough, super organised, very efficient, function in conflict or a constant state of being under attack or in danger (due to the culture of claims and penalties). When I finish work in the evening, it takes me a while to unwind and feel like a women again. Often I find myself being in the ‘go get it’ or ‘fight it’ mode, even in my private life. Such a situation is draining for most women and we create our own strategies to deal with these challenges.”

What practical steps can be taken for women to see construction as a career option?

“Construction is changing slowly. Women are treated better and people try to work in more collaborative manner. There are many positions and functions which women can thrive at and these do not require being on site all the time, etc.”

“The above information and awareness is not communicated strongly enough, which is why the wide perception and opinion of the construction industry is somehow outdated.”

“If the women who work in construction would speak out louder and share their experiences and successes with other women, then the perception would soon change.”

Particularly if they shared the following.

  • The knowledge that there are many positions available and that career success is possible. Women can be part of something amazing: creating a new railway line or constructing a landmark building.

  • The fact that they have support from other women.

  • That men treat them better and better.

  • How successful women are and that our attributes are actually advantages rather than weaknesses.

  • How exciting the work can be and what amazing projects they are involved in.

Will more women take up senior roles in construction and in technical areas such as BIM in the future?

“Women will take more senior roles. It is a natural process. The few female early adopters will hold senior roles and they will nurture future leaders — other women. The more we celebrate and share female successes, the easier it is for women to be inspired to thrive for more. Psychology is teaching us again that women would need to feel much more proficient then men if one is to go for a promotion or a challenge. If we communicate that it is OK not to be perfect and still try, then we will see more women taking up that challenge.”

Is it a change in education or the culture across the construction sector that will ultimately see more women come into the industry?

“It is all down to perception, marketing and presenting the correct picture of the industry. Research suggests that girls at schools are generally smarter and more ambitious than boys. In most of the cases, they simply don’t know that construction is an option and could be an exciting one.”

Are more diverse apprenticeships in construction a practical way to get more women into the industry?

“Construction is an industry which requires a practical, hands-on approach. Often, ‘professionals’ after years of studying are impaired by lack of pragmatic training. Therefore, apprenticeships are the best way to build up the workforce.”

“Everybody deserves the chance. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter what walk of life the person comes from, as long as they have the correct attitude and willingness to learn and work.”

Construction as a career option for women is seeing practical movement. The ONS illustrates this showing a near 10% increase in female construction workers, the highest it has been in 20 years. Construction companies can see the risks of a hard Brexit, demand for more house building and the changes to their workforces all need to be addressed. On way to do this is to encourage and attract more women into their industry.

Sandie Lee, Academic and Industry Engagement Tutor at University College of Estate Management concluded: “Within the UK, we certainly used to be faced with a cultural problem whereby there was definite discrimination regarding careers deemed ‘appropriate’ for women. An element of this may still exist. However, it’s positive to see the appearance and growth of organisations such as the NAWIC — National Association of Women in Construction, and the Women in Construction Awards. I think this is proof in itself that this is on the mend and I truly believe with more education and influence across the right channels, it will help see a rise in women in construction.”