Construction has long struggled to shake its historical gender imbalance. From subcontractors to the boardroom, men continue to form the majority of those who work in the sector and the public perception is that of a very male industry. But those who work in the industry also know that things are changing and that this pace of change has picked up significantly in recent years. So, as we celebrate Women’s History Month, International Women’s Day and the centenary of the first British women being granted the vote, it’s time to look at how our sector can do more to accelerate change when it comes to women in construction.
Here are four ways we can help change happen faster:
The workforce may be unbalanced but the scales are tipped from much earlier on: in the careers office. A 2017 study found that only 29% of women aged 15-21 had been given advice on working in construction compared with 40% of men. As a society we’re learning to de-gender work but it’s crucial to do more. Raising the profile of successful women in our industry as well as the many paths that lead to it is vital in order to speed the pace of change.
We also need to promote awareness of the variety of roles that construction offers. It’s not just about the hard hat, but people often forget that. Women are involved at every stage of construction, from putting pencil to paper right through to the final ribbon-cutting. That’s what makes our industry so exciting and dynamic and we need to get this message across more effectively.
Another misconception flagged up by a 2017 survey was the perceived lack of career progression in construction. When 1,000 women aged 16-25 were asked the main reason they were put off the sector, almost a half said they believed there was no career progression. This is where construction firms come into their own. We can dispel such myths by offering work experience and internship schemes that allow people to discover what it’s truly like to work in the industry. Once on-site they can see the number of positions involved in construction and how they all relate.
But we also need to commit to supporting women once they’re through the company doors. Helping staff gain additional accreditation and develop new skills is important for any organisation. It adds financial and social value to your company but is often overlooked. This is the second stage in challenging the myths around construction career progression: removing any grounds for its cause. We need to show that here women can break the glass ceiling, by building it themselves.
It’s one thing to attract women into construction but we also want to keep them here. Communication within construction firms plays the biggest part in this. Whether it’s fears surrounding maternity leave or any issues springing from the current male majority, women in the industry need to know that they’ll be listened to. Regular check-ins and mentoring schemes are other great ways to establish and maintain open lines of communication. At ITC we’re proud of the fact that our staff stay with us on average 8 years. Their concerns are our concerns, and it shows.
The UK government also has a large part to play in encouraging women to enter the construction workforce. Construction Future Wales, a Welsh Government initiative, runs a fully-funded ‘Leadership and Management’ course which this year saw record numbers of female students. An equal 50/50 gender balance in the latest intake shows that women are eager to enter the field when given the opportunity. Success like this indicates that the gender imbalance in our industry is on its way to being levelled but that government engagement greatly helps with acceleration.
These are some of the ways we can increase the rate at which we’re welcoming women into the industry. Getting more women into construction is also vital on a more practical level. The sector faces a chronic labour shortage with estimates last year stating that we need to recruit someone every 77 seconds until 2021 to meet the current housing demand. Luckily this problem already has an answer. Let’s not wait 100 years to get started on it.
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