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It’s about time for Brenda the Builder

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The following was published in Construction News.

It will not be a surprise to hear that the construction industry has some of the lowest numbers of women workers in any sector of the economy. With around 11% of the workforce, and as little as 1% of the manual trades, there is little concern in the industry and only modest attempts to change it. Do the low numbers of female workers in construction matter?

Like other male-dominated sectors life in construction can be difficult for women: primarily, widespread and unchallenged sexism combined with the repeated undermining of their worth. Yet despite this, many who stay enjoy the challenges and have rewarding careers.

The current workforce has one in five workers approaching retirement, with a further 26% between 45 and 55 years old. Just replacing these skilled workers presents a recruitment challenge. But a time of high recruitment presents a good opportunity to tackle inequality, but persuading women to consider such a career is problematic.  

Culture change is essential to make the industry more welcoming; eliminating a perceived bullying culture helps everyone. Opportunities to train and join the industry at different life stages need to be encouraged. For women with some life experience a move into construction can be attractive.

The construction industry must overhaul its recruitment methods to become an appealing employment choice. The sector suffers from a lack of modern employment practices across a number of areas, creating problems for women and men with caring responsibilities or disabilities.

Thankfully some small steps in the right direction are already being taken. 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. It raises awareness of the wide range of careers available among young people, parents and teachers, as well as informing them of the technical skills needed in the sector.

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.

It’s also important to retain good workers with policies such as flexible working and better support for women who wish to go into management. This could 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 if more women are to see their future in construction. We need this vital sector to thrive and with action now more women can develop a successful and rewarding career.  

Meg Munn MP is the editor of ‘Building the Future: Women in Construction’, published by the Smith Institute. It is available to read at: http://www.smith-institute.org.uk/file/Building%20the%20future%20-%20women%20in%20construction.pdf

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