Women make up approximately 47% of the UK’s workforce, but gender diversity in the construction industry remains poor. Women make up only 11% of the construction workforce as a whole, and this includes design, management and secretarial roles. Only 14% of entrants to UK engineering degrees are female. On building sites, 99% of workers are estimated to be male.
With so many successes to celebrate on International Women's Day, is the picture in construction really as bleak as the figures would suggest? Why is construction falling so short?*
There are two main questions hidden in the 11% above. Firstly, do women want to work in construction? A recent Equal Opportunities Commission report celebrated the fact that 80% of school-age girls said they would be interested in learning to do a non-traditional job; however, of these, only 12% were interested in construction. So, the challenge is to make construction a more appealing option to young people, and to encourage them to not see it as a male only career.
For many, the lack of women in the industry or interested in joining is down to a public image which is rooted in the past. Minister for Women and Equalities Nicky Morgan says; “We have a long way to go. Stereotypes still persist. For many, a job in construction too often still conjures up an image of a man in a hi-vis jacket on a building site, wearing his trousers slightly lower than he should.” Challenging this public image of construction is central to generating interest from a female audience. The CITB’s Positive Image campaign last April targeted this issue, specifically advertising in fitting rooms in the likes of Topshop and New Look. The campaign also advertised on lifestyle websites, on television and in cinemas, and results were certainly encouraging. Also challenging this image are the female led construction forums and organisations that are growing all over the country, supporting female development in the industry and also creating role models for those starting out. This is great news, but the challenge of change can’t just be a simple ‘you can do it’ message to women in the UK.
In order to make real progress, stamping out the sexism prevalent in the industry today needs to be made a priority. In this instance, the sexism doesn’t refer to the same guy in a hi vis jacket heckling a girl on the street, although that is another perception that needs to be addressed in order to enhance construction’s image as more female friendly. Rather than basing all efforts in generating a great public image and interest from a female audience, construction’s inequalities in pay, progression and employee benefits need to be tackled head on, and this step begins with employers. So this leads to the second question. If women are getting interested in the industry, that’s great. But the industry needs to meet women halfway. Does the industry want to recruit women?
Despite limited evidence, research suggests that while the pay gap for those in construction under the age of 29 is almost non-existent, in positions of seniority, women are earning up to 40% less than their male counterparts. This is a pay gap wider than the majority of UK industries. However, small steps are being made. From improvements to maternity benefits, to courses for female apprentices, a selection of UK employers are putting diversity and equality at the forefront of their businesses. But these changes need to become much more widespread across the sector to make a dent on the bleak figures above.
Are you a female working in the construction industry? How do you feel your experience matches up with common perceptions? If you’re not in the industry, what would your perception be? Post in the comments below!
*Note: this post was written in March 2016.