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“(Wo)Men at work” Why aren’t more women working in construction?

Women make up only 11% of the UK construction workforce and even this figure includes many who work behind a desk in design, management or secretarial roles. Just 1% of women make up workers on site and the numbers for female roofers, glaziers and bricklayers are so low they are impossible to quantify.

So, why are numbers so low? Could it be to do with stereotypical ideas which are instilled in us from an early age? What images are conjured up when we think of the construction industry which do it an injustice? Portable loos on the hard shoulder of the motorway? Wolf whistles from scaffolding? Or as Nicky Morgan MP put it, “an image of a man in a hi-vis jacket on a building site wearing his trousers slightly lower than they should be…”

Maybe, firstly the answer is to improve construction career advice in schools for girls to increase their awareness of the huge variety of job roles available stretching from Architect through to Quantity Surveyor to Welder. This is inextricably linked to furthering the work being done to encourage girls to take A levels and degrees in traditionally male dominated subjects including maths and sciences.

We need more spotlights to be shone on the women who are already forging careers in construction (many of whom have been quietly doing so for years) and those trailblazing a path to inspire young women deciding upon a career, and women wanting to make a change. They should be role models who can act as mentors and prove to girls that no job is off limits, whether she wants to be a plasterer or a structural engineer.

Secondly, the issues holding women back need to be identified and addressed. Reportedly, female construction workers identified feeling isolated, having to deal with inappropriate comments or behaviour and a lack of family friendly working practices as some of the negative aspects of the industry. Having said that however, women also report that their employers are tackling diversity issues more actively and this is improving all the time. In addition, 70% of women in the construction industry would recommend it as a career to a daughter, niece or family friend.

It is estimated that the UK construction sector will need 200,000 more workers by 2020 to keep up with demand and companies are missing out if they fail to see the value of recruiting skilled female workers…and helping them progress. Women will be key in plugging this skills gap facing the sector.

There is work being done to face this challenge and some construction companies are investing in national campaigns to encourage women into the sector. However, more can always be done. Therefore, there needs to be greater pay transparency with published pay scales; greater flexibility around childcare, part time working and maternity rights and improved promotional prospects for women to move into more senior roles.

Women are set to make up a quarter of the UK construction workforce by 2020 – let’s hope to see this upward trajectory continue – and rid ourselves of those outdated stereotypes of what a construction site conjures up.

Clare Bond

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