To date, progress has been slow in encouraging women into careers in construction and infrastructure. A largely male-dominated sector, it has one of the worst track records for gender balance in the UK. Women make up only about 13% of the UK’s construction workforce. By contrast, in Cyprus, Latvia and Bulgaria, women account for over 30% of workers in the industry.
Figures show that only 320,000 women are employed in construction in the UK, out of a total workforce estimated at around 2.9m. They hold only 16% of senior roles. According to recruitment agents Randstad, female employees are anticipated to constitute around 25% of the UK’s construction workforce by 2020. Clearly there is much ground to make up.
For a start, something will need to be done about the gender pay gap. Office for National Statistics data shows that the gap is currently 45.4%, with women paid an average hourly rate of £8.04 compared with £14.74 for men.
Tackling the problem from all angles
The public image of the industry is evolving, but many would argue that the pace of change is painfully slow. Sector analysts believe that part of the answer to recruiting both men and women into the industry lies in educating people about the rapidly changing nature of construction, highlighting its innovations and its readiness to adopt new technology. This process, they say, should start in primary school, as focusing on secondary school children could be too little, too late. Only 15.8% of undergraduates studying engineering and technology in the UK are female.
Currently, most women in the construction industry leave within five years. However, many of the major players in the industry are becoming increasingly aware of the need to operate family-friendly policies, supporting those who return to work and recognising the needs of those with dependants. Part of the answer to the problem lies in providing more innovative training and development opportunities. Implementing a wide range of continual learning programmes and personal development strategies can help provide the encouragement necessary for employees at all levels to continue to pursue their careers in the industry.
With HS2 expected to need a workforce of around 30,000 people, Women into Construction, the independent not-for-profit organisation that promotes gender equality in construction, has been playing a major role, together with local organisations in the West Midlands, in encouraging more women to consider the many options a career in construction can provide.
Courses are being run designed to provide valuable insight into the industry. These are combined with work experience at HS2 and its supply chain partners. What these courses will particularly highlight is the diversity of career opportunities that 21st century construction provides, everything from civil engineering, design, project management and procurement to ecology and archaeology.
Adopting a new perspective
Hopefully, misconceptions about gender-specific roles will diminish over time. Although the outdated perception of the industry as being just about digging holes and laying concrete is gradually shifting, clearly there is more to be done to dispel the macho image so that more women will feel confident in choosing a career in construction. Promoting the wide range of roles needed today to deliver projects of all sizes will help underline the career opportunities on offer.
However, the industry must ensure that it can clearly demonstrate that it has a culture that doesn’t tolerate sexism, bullying, or discrimination of any sort.