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Women in Construction: A Change in Approach

25th April 2014

Anne Fuller

Anne Fuller asks where are the new ideas...

The recent launch at Portcullis House of the Smith Institute’s report ‘Building the Future: Women in Construction’, was followed by a debate attended by over a hundred people (mainly women) working in, or with links to, construction. The report discusses the imbalance present in an industry where women represent around 11 per cent of the total workforce and only 1 per cent of manual trades; and includes testimonies from women who have forged successful careers in construction, sometimes against the odds.   

As would be expected, there was general agreement about the need to increase the number of women entering construction, but was I the only one to come away disappointed at the lack of new ideas put forward to address this? The only real suggestion seemed to be to go into schools to speak to girls about careers in construction and while I agree that this is valuable, it is already happening and is hardly a step change. I can’t help thinking that if this is the best we can come up with it is going to be a long slow process to achieving the gender balance that we are aiming for.

More importantly, are we actually tackling this issue from the right angle? Instead of trying to change the views of women so that they are prepared to consider careers in construction, shouldn’t we be trying to change construction to make it an industry that women want to enter and, equally importantly given current poor retention rates, to stay in?

Much is spoken about changing the perception of construction, the implication being that the perception is inaccurate; however the sad fact is that much of it is true. Construction workers, particularly in manual trades, often get a raw deal compared to workers in other sectors.  This is not specifically a gender issue; the assumption that women want something completely different from a career than men is unfounded. Whilst women may have different priorities; more focus on flexible working hours for example; both sexes want, and have a right to, a safe working environment, decent pay, sensible working hours, improved job security, a clear route to career progression etc. 

The government in its ‘Construction 2025 Strategy’ published in July last year appears at last to have recognised that it needs to address issues such as poor payment practices, inefficient procurement methods, lack of financing etc. which are holding back the industry and, as a consequence, making it more difficult for employers to provide the kind of working conditions that people should expect. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction and time will tell how successful the proposed measures prove to be.

Alongside fixing those things which are wrong with construction, we need to shout about those things that are right – and there is plenty to shout about. UK construction has been at the forefront of advances in sustainable design and digital engineering, whilst our expertise in architecture and engineering is recognized across the globe. But whilst we are pretty good at telling each other how good we are, we are less good at telling those outside the industry. Maybe it’s time to think differently; whether that’s making better use of social media, seeking help from brand consultants or, like the armed forces, investing in advertising. I’m not sure what the answer is, but it has to be more than careers talks in schools...

Anne Fuller is engineering director at Capita

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