Ask many young women if they want to work in building, and they’ll say ‘no, thanks’.
Ask them if they want ‘to build a better future’, and that surely pushes many people’s buttons, at a time when we’re looking for more ‘meaning’ in our careers (something numerous surveys have suggested young people value highly). Because this isn’t just about erecting super-apartments for oligarchs; it’s about building hospitals, schools and the type of housing that will enable us to stay in our twilight-years-friendly homes for a lifetime.
But what I’ve just seen, in action, is that there is a real desire for change in the building industry: to attract more women.
Recently, I took part in a panel – ‘The Changing Face of Construction’ - organised by Skanska (one of the biggest players in the building world).
It brought together a – yes – very diverse group, including Neil Bentley (former CEO of the CBI and one of the ‘100 most influential gay, bisexual or transgender people globally’, in the 2012 World Pride Power List), Chris Moon MBE (who lost his lower arm and leg while clearing landmines in Africa), and Beth West, Commercial Director for HS2.
But what really heartened me was that on a chilly, rainy night when they could have been at home with a hot toddy and a box set of Orange is the New Black, 250 professionals across the construction world turned out to debate the issue.
Because, the fact is, construction has a skills shortage. It isn’t currently tapping into a skilled workforce of women, homosexuals, or disabled people - almost certainly because of that ‘macho’ image.
We talked about the need for flexibility. In common with many sectors, what puts women off is the ‘jacket-on-the-back-of-the-chair’ culture (in this case, presumably a hi-vis -on-the-back-of-the-crane), which demands ludicrously long hours and is inflexible about home working.
(No, obviously I realise you can’t operate a cement mixer from home. But the majority of the workforce in construction is actually in sales, administration, procurement, legal, finance, logistics – all roles which can be performed remotely, and in a family-friendly way).
We talked about seeking to create a culture that projects itself as more welcoming to those of us without bulging biceps and the ability to carry a hod of bricks.
And a culture that doesn’t accept sexism – that’s where wolf-whistling came in. Because if construction really wants to attract women, a 'no wolf-whistling policy’ has to be enforced.
This issue isn't going away: just last month, 23-year-old Poppy Smart complained of sexual harassment after being plagued by daily whistles from builders on her way to work in Worcester.
Although no arrests followed, but the police did take it seriously – and hopefully, knuckles were sharply, if metaphorically, rapped with a scaffolding pole.
If you Google 'young women builders', articles about wolf-whistling are still the top results. It's this imbalance we so desperately need to change. And it can be done.
Beth West is a shining example of how women can flourish in the building world, if given the opportunity (and she does indeed juggle this successfully with motherhood) – but there surely need to be more of us.
Similarly, there need to be more disabled people. According to Chris Moon, they just don’t feel it’s for them (flexible working is not just an issue for women). Neither does the LGBT community, agreed Neil Bentley.
The government really needs to play a role, here. And there are some positive signs.
A new scheme called Building Girls Up, run in partnership with the Government’s education programme Inspiring the Future, will be coordinating workshops with 140,000 young women between the ages of 16 and 18, to encourage them to consider construction as a career.
Those who are keen will be introduced to industry role models, potential employers and receive support from schemes such as the Prince’s Trust.
They are tackling the idea that women aren't physically strong enough, or good enough - ingrained early in our lives - to work in building.
If it’s a hit, it’ll be rolled out nationwide.
What's more, major projects such as London's Crossrail network are making an effort to hire equally - almost a third of its jobs are filled by women.
Perhaps it really ought to start at playschool level, making girls understand almost from the cradle that the construction world is for girls, too.
(A ‘Beth the Builder’ doll, anyone? Though I rather dread what Mattel would do with a ‘Construction Barbie’, so let’s pass on that one).
But what I saw and heard was an audience gathered from a deeply traditional industry, open and willing to change – including several extremely high-level executives, who can implement more women/gay/disabled-friendly policies, which flow downwards and outwards from there, becoming part of their corporations’ culture.
And I, for one, would feel just slightly less annoyed at being held up for a reversing bulldozer by someone in a fluoro jerkin carrying a sign that said ‘People at Work’ rather than ‘Men at Work’.
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