Is construction still a losing game for most women?

With so few women in the construction industry that the figure is “unmeasurable”, Julia Evans (pictured), Chief Executive of BSRIA, calls for a more inclusive approach…

Cynics might cast a sceptical eye at the timing of the Cabinet reshuffle, but the fact that women are more prominent in politics is a cause for celebration. Women comprise 52% of Britain’s population, so increasing female ministers to around a quarter of the Cabinet (6 out of 17) is a belated step in the right direction. But when there are so many talented women, why is it that more don’t achieve high office?

Before we cast too may stones, we in the construction industry need to have a good look in the mirror. Women make up just 11% of the workforce and our industry’s lack of progress towards equality is shameful.

Women have struggled to get an equal footing in construction, but the representation of women in our industry has waxed and waned in recent history, demonstrating that, left to chance, both government leadership and the fluctuating demands for skilled labour can be persuasive. Perhaps Nicky Morgan, the new Minister for Women and Equalities ought to have something to say about this too.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of women who work as roofers, bricklayers and glaziers is currently so low, it’s unmeasurable. But in the 18th century, British women worked as apprentices “in a host of construction occupations, including as bricklayers, carpenters, joiners and shipwrights”. By the early 19th century, however, with changes in legislation and new divisions of skilled/unskilled labour, women became increasingly excluded. By 1861 trades including that of carpenter, plumber, painter, and mason, were largely ‘male’.

Skilled male jobs

The First World War saw a marked increase in women in the building trades. A government agreement with the trade unions “allowed women into skilled male jobs as long as wages were kept low and they were released at the end of the war”.

In World War Two, there was a shortage of some 50,000 building workers, so the National Joint Council for the Building Industry agreed that employers should identify whether men were available first before filling the roles with women (who earned around 40% less than men compared with around 10% less now). The bias of the apprenticeship systems and trade unions were largely responsible for the decline of women in the building industry from the Fifties to Seventies.

We’re currently back to the issue of a lack of available skilled labour. The government recognises this, and I welcome the recently announced BIS funding call specifically designed to help women progress as engineers. This will support employer-led training to encourage career conversions and progression in the industry.

This call is in response to a recent report identifying that “substantially increasing the number of engineers would help the UK economy and the potential to significantly increase the stock of engineers by improving the proportion of women working in engineering jobs”.

Funding new training is a great step forward, but for real change, industry leaders must be proactive in embedding a more diverse and inclusive work culture. Most women aged 25-45 find that attitudes, behaviours and perceptions are the greatest barriers.

If you feel there is nothing new in the story, then the words ‘ostrich’ and ‘sand’ come to mind. It is about you. It’s about you and how you and your business behave now, not just when we have the time given that the recession is over and it’s a ‘nice to do’.

So, inspirational leadership – and not just policy – will foster a more inclusive and skilled workforce. Look around you. How many women are in senior management roles? Is your organisation progressive or part of the problem? And what are you going to do about it?

*BSRIA is a non-profit distributing, member-based association, providing specialist services in construction and building services.

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