Last reviewed 1 August 2018

Companies and industry bodies are anxious to attract more women and other under-represented groups into construction as engineers and potential executives. Jon Herbert investigates why their numbers remain much lower than they should be in the industry and what is being done to address the problem.

The low numbers of women planning professional careers and taking leadership roles in the built environment are damaging the industry, the economy and the wider prospects of female employees themselves, including at boardroom level, says the Government. Women currently only represent some 13% of the construction and building sector workforce.

The fact that many women face barriers in returning after mid-career breaks has been acknowledged. But there is also a shortage of young people of all genders looking for satisfying long-term careers in an industry they seem to associate with negative stereotypes. This is part of a much broader appeal problem deterring young women from high-paying sectors that include science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The Women’s Engineering Society (WES) says fewer than 1 in 10 UK engineers are female; this is Europe’s lowest percentage and compares with nearly 30% in Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) adds that there is evidence that bridging the gender pay gap could add £150 billion to the UK economy by 2025. Closing this disparity is a priority in the Government’s modern Industrial Strategy.

Another aim is to meet the Government-backed Hampton-Alexander Review target — which passed its halfway point in June — for a third of FTSE leadership positions to be held by women by 2020. The number of all-male FTSE 350 company boards fell from 152 in 2011 to 10 in 2017. In May, BEIS also published a shaming list of “worst explanations” for not appointing women to top boards, including statements such as “I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment” and “most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board”.

Board-level thinking

The point is also made that having more women on the board improves the way that boards act by increasing their range of perspectives and insights, reflecting the full diversity of stakeholders and improving collaborative teamwork. Senior women can also provide role models and mentoring in a more positive working environment, it is argued. They are more likely to be able to recognise their own skills in other women and promote them accordingly.

Greater board level gender diversity improves company image too, boosting sales and market performance. The Collapse of Carillion (March 2018) is seen as a significant marker in the need to change thinking and decision-making from boardroom level through to building sites.

Meanwhile, a report by McKinsey, Delivering Through Diversity, which examined 1000 companies in 12 countries, has found that those in the top quartile for executive team gender diversity are 21% more likely to have above-average profits compared to companies falling in the fourth quartile companies — a 6% increase since 2014.

Pay confusion

Plain pay data can also be confusing because it often fails to show figures and trends for the number of women entering and working in what are termed lower, lower middle, middle and top “quartiles”.

As of April 2018, all UK companies with 250 or more employees have had to provide the Government Equalities Office data on how much they pay their male and female staff. Some companies, like Highways England, have a positive “median pay gap” in favour of women. Engineering and construction companies report an average of 23.3%, compared with the UK average of an 18.1% gap.

However, median pay, which is a measure of hourly wage, is affected in practice by the number of men and women actually working in each quartile. Women currently hold fewer senior roles, so appointing more women to these roles will affect the figures.

Royal Academy of Engineering gender pay gap lead, Elspeth Finch, comments that the pay figures give no clues about why the gaps exist. Making assumptions is easy; however, if the real problems were known they would already be being addressed. There is more work to be done.

Although future careers will almost inevitably call for very different skill sets, technical know-how and experience, the challenge is finding ways to remove existing barriers, prejudices, long working hours, poor flexible working arrangements and ingrained behavioural responses that prevent excellent people from working for the common good.

Rebuilding confidence

WES estimates that circa 20,000 skilled women engineers are finding it hard to restart their careers and could become a lost pool of talent that companies need urgently to resolve their skills shortages. It is also important to broaden diversity within the profession, it says, which is why many industry bodies are now keen to find “lost engineers” and guide them back into work.

The Institute of Marine, Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST) has developed a return-to-work programme for professionals with WES called STEM Returners. Its 13-week paid employment placements with partner companies is aimed at people who have had a 1 to 10-year career break and lost confidence. Undervaluing their skills and experience, they tend to apply for less senior roles than they held before leaving, IMarEST says.

This disadvantage is compounded by recruitment agencies who equate CV gaps with deteriorating skills; artificial intelligence (AI) recruitment algorithms make this worse. Conventionally, hiring managers discount CVs with gaps of two to three years or more. The result is lost expertise and capabilities at a crucial stage from people with great potential.

The 13-week work placements offer returners confidence building, training, career coaching, networking opportunities and peer support. If employers and returners are then happy, job vacancy matches are made. In effect, the 13 weeks become an extended job interview during which time both sides can get to know each other well.

The Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) is also partnering with engineering firms on paid work placements for professionals after career breaks. The result is 10 to 12-week contracts for participants at any stage in their career journey to work on company projects. These come with support if participants feel uncertain while they refresh their technical and professional skills.

The aim is also to increase the pool of talented candidates in professions where the traditional journey to the top is made over many years based on experience, and where more emphasis needs to be made on good communication and interpersonal skills.

Apprenticeship failures

One other brake on skills development is a general lack of awareness of engineering apprenticeships, which is also said to be holding back the UK’s ability to attract and maximise the potential of the next generation of vital engineering talent.

A March report, Engineering UK 2018: The State of Engineering, estimated that 124,000 people with “core engineering” skills are needed each year, plus another 79,000 in “related” roles with engineering knowledge. The educations system currently creates a shortfall of 56,000, it says. Some 58% of 11 to 14-year-olds are reported to know very little about apprenticeships and the different types available.

Parents are similarly short of information; only 46% say they understand what apprenticeships mean, of these 55% are aware of different apprenticeship types. Apprenticeship numbers have been growing but are now decreasing again.

Teachers are advised to be particularly aware of how girls perceive their own abilities. Confidence in STEM subjects as built at home and in the classroom where affirmation, reinforcement and not allowing others to define what young people are and are not good at, is important. Studies show that girls frequently doubt their mathematical abilities but in practice score only two average points lower than boys when tested.

“Inspire Me” campaign

The Women’s Business Council, set up by Teresa May while Home Secretary in 2012, is a government-backed initiative led by the business community. The council’s goals are to maximise women’s economic growth contribution, and raise the number of women from circa 13%, including women at board level, in the construction industry. The resulting Inspire Me campaign with Construction News is designed to expand leadership roles.

The Women’s Business Council wants to:

  • accelerate the pace of change

  • increase and support executive pipeline development for women and girls of all ages and stages

  • make informed choice-making possible

  • harness the experience and talent of women

  • promote equality through a broad range of conversations.

It is estimated that changes could bring another one million women into the national workforce.