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Gender imbalance in construction to be smashed by new scheme aimed at young women?

Category: Industry News, Women, gender, STEM, construction

Gender imbalance in construction to be smashed

Construction must become a more welcoming industry for women if it is to thrive. Is this the end for jobs for the boys?

'A female colleague of mine put her finger on the truth when she said that neither she nor her friends would consider working on a construction site due to the effect it might have on their nails.”

This comment caused quite the stir 10 years ago, when Roger Knowles, chairman of the construction consultancy that bears his name, was asked by Building magazine why there were so few women in the industry. Mr Knowles added: “If you take 50 females of your acquaintance, or just walk down Oxford Street and ask, 'Do you want a job in construction?’ you’ll get your answer. Most would say 'No’.”

At the time, women represented only 12pc of construction professionals and 1pc of workers in manual trades. A decade on, there has been only marginal improvement: 14.5pc of the total construction workforce is female, according to construction training and registration body CITB, and 2pc of manual workers.

The Office for National Statistics also recently revealed that the number of women working as roofers and bricklayers is so low, it’s unmeasurable.

There have been several construction initiatives over the past decade that have attempted to encourage more women into the industry. The latest, Building Up Girls, which will launch later this year, has been created by property entrepreneur Marta De Sousa, Jo Wallace, advertising creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, and photographer Leonora Saunders.

“There is a widespread perception that the construction industry is a male domain not open to women,” says 30-year-old De Sousa, who created the scheme after struggling to recruit a balanced workforce to her £4m firm.

“Signs that read 'Men at Work’ have only served to reinforce this image. There is a culture of stereotypes where women are incorrectly portrayed not being physically strong, tough or simply good enough, at construction-related tasks, and this is ingrained early on in life.”

Building Up Girls, which is being run in partnership with the Government’s education programme Inspiring the Future, will run workshops with 140,000 young women aged between 16 and 18 in London to encourage them to consider a career in construction before the scheme is rolled out across the UK.

Those who are keen to apply for a role or apprenticeship in the building trade will then be introduced to industry role models, potential employers and receive support from companies such as the Prince’s Trust about the construction apprenticeships available.

Encouraging more women into male-dominated trades has become a priority for the Government, which launched #NotJustForBoys this year, a campaign to tackle the stereotypes still sometimes applied to industries such as construction and manufacturing.

Former Conservative minister Esther McVey - who lost her Wirral West seat in the early hours of Friday morning – whose family runs a construction firm, said as many as 12m new job opportunities could emerge in areas of the economy like the engineering and building trades over 10 years and that it was essential that women aren’t left behind.

“Despite a record number of women in work, they are still under-represented in engineering, science and construction,” she said, adding that instead of focusing solely on Bob The Builder, young children should be taught about “Becky the Builder” as well.

Many other campaigns of this ilk have been unsuccessful. Janet Shelley set up Women Builders in 2003 to tackle the dearth of women in the construction. By 2007, she had been awarded an MBE for her services to the industry. Her company’s school in Bletchley HQ trained up 20 or so women through its six-week Jobs for the Girls courses in building maintenance, new build, carpentry and plumbing. However, the business has since closed.

The ongoing gender imbalance in construction can be partially attributed to the recession, which hit the industry harder than many, according to Helen Bunch, a managing director at Wates Group, one of the UK’s largest building and construction companies.

“The sector has been through one of the worst recessions, where large numbers of people through these years were laid off rather than being recruited,” she explains. “But we also need more education around the range of roles that are available in construction.

“I think most people just think it’s all about working on site and that’s not for everyone. But contracting also requires commercial, design, environmental, planning, marketing, legal and financial skills.”

The industry is still battling a significant image problem. Last month a woman reported a building firm to the police after enduring wolf-whistling and “disrespectful comments” each morning on her way to work.

Poppy Smart, 23, dropped charges against Worcester-based Fimeca Building and Maintenance after the culprits were internally disciplined, but the story reinforced the stereotype of “lad culture” among building contractors.

In March, CITB conducted a poll which found that 73pc of 1,500 employers across the country believe that sexism is the main reason why women are under-represented in the industry. “We are a long way from overcoming the perceptions of sexism in our sector, which potentially keep people away,” says Gillian Econopouly, the CITB’s head of research.

The CITB study also found that 78pc of respondents thought that a lack of female role models in the industry was a reason for the gender imbalance.

The Sunday Telegraph approached several high-level women from the construction industry to discuss the issue, but many declined to comment.

Lucinda Bell, chief financial officer at property investment firm British Land and one of just 14 women at board level in a FTSE 100 construction firm, says: “I don’t feel like I have a particular view on the matter. It’s not something I have deep insight on.”

Kath Fontana, managing director of construction firm BAM FM, disagrees. “Construction does not have enough females at senior board level,” she says. “I think there is definite conscious and unconscious bias towards appointing white males to senior posts.”

Fontana claims that part of the problem is the “old boys’ network”. “Many senior people have been in post for many years,” she explains. “All-male social activities are common.”

According to Bell, flexible working will be key to encouraging more women into the property and building trades. “I was allowed to work part-time here for a while, which British Land was really supportive of,” she says.

When pressed, she admitted: “It is the case that the industry as a whole doesn’t have as many senior women than many others do, but efforts have been made to develop the pipeline.”

Crossrail, which is building the new London railway, is seeking to boost the representation of women working in construction, particularly in engineering roles. The UK has the lowest representation of female engineers of any European country; just 8.5pc are women. In contrast, almost a third of Crossrail jobs, Europe’s largest infrastructure project, are already filled by women.

“Crossrail and its contractors regularly visit London schools to inspire the next generation of construction workers and engineers, but a joint effort is needed between schools, parents, government and industry to encourage more young people, including women, to pursue a construction and engineering career,” says Crossrail director Ailie MacAdam.

According to Wates’ Bunch, following a tough decade for construction, the industry is finally ready to start making a concerted effort to attract more women. “Things are on the up now and the sector is desperate for talent,” she says. “Now is a great time for women to be thinking about a career in the business.”

As for women worrying about the state of their nails, De Sousa claims that women today are happy to get their hands dirty.

“As women we’ve been told that we wouldn’t want to be in the army, or be professional boxers or sit on company boardrooms, and we’ve been proving them wrong,” she says. “We’ll prove Roger Knowles wrong too.”

Vercida works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with Vercida to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please call 02037405973 or email [email protected] for more information.

We are also officially recommended by Disability Confident as a step on achieving Employer status, please click here for more information.

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email [email protected] for more information.

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