Addressing the gender gap in construction

Addressing the gender gap in construction

This year, the proportion of women in the construction industry hit a low not seen since the Covid pandemic. According to the Office for National Statistics, the gender ratio in the sector in the first quarter of 2024 was 13.6%, down from a 15.8% peak between April and June 2023.

Growth in major infrastructure and regeneration projects means construction desperately needs more people. The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) predicts that the industry will need around 250,000 additional workers in the next five years.

So why do women make up such a small proportion of the construction workforce? Firstly, there are many misconceptions that the industry is full of old-fashioned attitudes and working practices that might put women off. “Perception and culture remain two of the key issues facing women who are forging careers in what’s still a male-dominated industry,” explains Sandi Rhys Jones, president of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB). “While progress is being made, there is still a long way to go.”

Too many women feel that there will be a limited range of jobs available, and that the roles on offer involve long-hours, being on site every day and require employees to tolerate dirty or physically demanding conditions. She adds: “The industry needs to shift the perception of many that construction is a last-resort career by highlighting the wide range of opportunities, roles and routes into work and the great satisfaction in creating something tangible.” Retention is also an issue - there is little point in attracting more women into construction if its culture means they don’t stick around.

“Perception and culture remain two of the key issues facing women who are forging careers in what’s still a male-dominated industry”

What enlightened companies are doing

To tackle this, a growing number of companies are embracing best practice around the recruitment of women and changing their culture. “Enlightened firms have changed recruitment processes (using blind CVs, for example, not asking for current salaries or asking about family obligations),” says Rhys Jones. However, she cites a recent study by a PhD student at Reading University, which found that construction measures up poorly compared to other industries adopting more inclusive practices.

More employers also now recognise that flexible working for female construction professionals can support their careers and work-life balance. It’s easy to assume this is impossible to offer in construction because it is site-based, but there are options. Flexible working consultancy Timewise ran a series of pilots with construction firms and found that small changes such as ensuring that workers have ‘ownership’ of their shift patterns or taking an output-based approach can build flexibility and engagement.

“Flexibility is an essential element in retaining women at critical points in their careers, whether it's caring responsibilities for children or for ageing parents, or wanting to expand their professional development,” says Rhys Jones. “Another driver for change has been the shocking suicide rates amongst site workers, which has led to some improvement in site facilities and working conditions. If the image of the industry is to change then getting the basics right and providing people with decent working conditions to protect their safety and wellbeing is a must.”

Working facilities and social media

Ensuring physical working arrangements and protective equipment can cater for a growing female workforce is also essential. “I rarely have a conversation about recruiting and retaining women in construction without decent toilet provision being raised as a problem,” she adds. “And the provision of inclusive personal protective equipment (PPE) is an ongoing problem.” Rhys Jones led a campaign in 2023 to ensure employers offer #PPEthatfits, and social media accounts of women in the industry have shown some who have struggled with appropriate clothing. “It amazes me that we expect anyone to want to work in our industry when we can’t give them the basic kit to keep them safe. And let’s be clear, this isn’t just an issue faced by women, but also some men and people for whom standard PPE isn’t compatible with body shape and size, religious headwear or other clothing for example,” she says.

Attracting women into the industry is the first challenge, so companies are using social media to showcase young women who are forging successful careers. They highlight female role models in senior leadership positions, proving that women can follow a career path in the industry with confidence. Once women have joined the workforce, they’re focusing on retaining them through initiatives such as mentoring and buddy schemes, and ensuring workplace policies are inclusive and supportive of life stages such as maternity.

"Companies are using social media to showcase young women who are forging successful careers"

These approaches are essential if the industry’s skills gap is to be addressed. “It's also important to remember why a lack of diversity is a problem,” Rhys Jones concludes. “In simple terms, it means employers are missing out: missing out on innovation, missing out on different viewpoints and missing out on creativity, all of which are needed for a company to be truly successful, not just in terms of profitability but also in terms of employee wellbeing and client satisfaction. In a far wider sense, construction provides so much that is essential to everyone’s lives – housing, infrastructure, schools, offices, hospitals, shops – it makes sense that those delivering it reflect the societies they serve.”

Published on
June 25, 2024