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Constructing an economy where women thrive

Monday, March 17, 2014

The following article was published in The Yorkshire Post.

Women currently comprise around 11% of the workforce in the construction sector, and as little as one % of the manual trades. There appears to be little concern in the industry about this low level of female employment, and only modest attempts to remedy it. Do the low numbers of female workers in construction matter?

With approximately one in five workers approaching retirement age, and a further 26% between 45 and 55 years old; replacing these retirees alone presents a big recruitment challenge to ensure that the industry will have the workers it needs. It is a good opportunity to tackle inequality at a time of high recruitment and skill shortages, but getting women to consider such a career is a big challenge.

Whilst the current image of the construction sector is antipathetic for women, sustained efforts in the past to change this have succeeded in increasing the number of women active in the industry. There are examples of change happening if the will is there. Nevertheless, there are clearly challenges in recruitment.

The construction industry must overhaul its recruitment campaigns and change its image and culture if it is to become an attractive modern employment choice. At the moment most young people have little idea of the wide range of employment opportunities available, so it is not surprising that many recruits join the industry only because a family member is already involved.

Like other male-dominated sectors of the economy, there are many factors that make life difficult for women: primarily, widespread and unchallenged sexism combined with the repeated undermining of their worth. Women in construction need determination to stay and ride out these problems. But they also need support and trade unions are important in this regard. Many who have stayed enjoy the challenges and have rewarding careers.

The industry suffers from a lack of modern employment practices in many areas, creating problems for women and men with caring responsibilities or disabilities. Construction is an extreme case in that the way jobs are structured allows greater discrimination, both direct and indirect. Learning from other disciplines that have changed the profile of their workforce, such as law and medicine, should be a first step.

Thankfully some small steps in the right direction are already being taken to change the culture in the construction industry.

Set up by an architect and a surveyor, the Class of Your Own programme is a good example of how young people can learn about and become involved. The programme raises awareness of the wide range of careers available among young people, parents and teachers, as well as informing them of the technical skills involved in the sector: skills ranging from bricklaying, carpentry, electrical and plumbing to design, architecture and surveying well-paid, long-term jobs.

The Construction Youth Trust is an example of a voluntary-sector initiative supporting new entrants, helping young people access training, education and employment opportunities. It has deployed a number of innovative methods to attract girls and women. New networks for women, such as WiBSE (Women in Building Services Engineering) are also developing, reducing isolation and providing mentors and confidence-building programmes, encouraging women to stay and develop fulfilling careers.

The government needs to take a stronger lead to articulate the business case for change and increase those programmes currently in operation. Culture change is essential to make the industry more welcoming of women; eliminating a perceived bullying culture will help everyone.

Opportunities to train and join the industry at different life stages need to be encouraged. While it is important to ensure that young people can enter the workplace with relevant skills, this is not a reason to ignore others. Funding for apprenticeships and courses for those choosing a new career should be a priority for government and industry alike. Contractors need to ensure that those in training can secure work placement.

Retention is also vital holding onto good workers. This includes better conditions, flexible working policies and a commitment to supporting those women who wish to go into management. This would provide an attractive career path, but also build up a more diverse management, who in their turn are more likely to attract and recruit a diverse workforce.

There is clearly much still to be fixed. It is vital for the health of the UK economy that this issue is tackled. There are social value and community benefits to having women join the construction sector it holds opportunities for women and girls, and also for male entrants of all ages.

Meg Munn MP is the editor of ‘Building the Future: Women in Construction’, published by the Smith Institute (March 2014). 

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