Women in Construction: Building Bridges
13th August 2018
Any way you look at it, pushing women out of the workplace in construction doesn’t make sense. In an industry facing a potentially catastrophic skills shortage, top to bottom, the building trade has been slamming doors it should have been wedging open for years. The problems are partly cultural and partly practical, hearts and minds as much as hammers and nails. With 158,000 jobs to fill in the next few years and Brexit quite possibly choking off the flow of workers from overseas, the industry’s charging the skills shortfall cliff edge headlong and not doing nearly enough to change course.
We’ve seen from the raw numbers that increasing the proportion of women in a business brings a 15% financial advantage. So what’s actually pushing women away from careers in construction? It turns out that, from the worksite to the boardroom, the answers are pretty much the same.
For one thing, there are some deeply engrained biases against women in the building game. Some are hidden, while others are pretty much out in the open. Chances are, you’ve heard some of them already. Women are too unreliable. They’ll leave to have babies. They’re not really interested in this kind of work so they’ll never stay. We’ll have to spend too much changing the workplace to cope with them. The truth is, none of these worries hold real water when they’re tested. The truth, however, rarely gets a look-in when these decisions are made. Women tend to be passed over, so in turn they tend to pass over opportunities in construction when they arise.
Of course, the problems women face don’t end once they’ve managed to cram a foot in the construction industry door. Women in construction often find themselves under much closer scrutiny than men. They’re expected to prove themselves constantly, where their male workmates are simply assumed to be competent. Close to 1 in 3 women in the building trade have received inappropriate comments at work. That number’s already pretty horrendous, but it’s probably only the tip of a very ugly iceberg. Fear of being labelled a “troublemaker” keeps a lot of complaints from ever being made. Construction already has a pretty bad record for dealing with mental health. Women report being shouted at, bullied and ignored because of their gender, and stifling complaints about a hostile workplace only makes things worse for everyone.
You’ve also got to look at the positions that are being offered to women. A lot of the time, they get funnelled into admin roles without serious promotion prospects. Dead-end jobs push people out after a while, and can be tough to fill with good, skilled workers. Taking on an employee is an investment, and any worthwhile investment needs to be given room to grow.
Obviously, we’re not saying construction’s to blame for all the world’s ills here. In fact, it’s actually one of the more accepting UK industries in other ways. It’s more open than most to employing ex-offenders, for one thing. Women do seem to remain a blind spot for the building trade, though – and the biases probably begin much earlier than we tend to think. Boys are still given construction-based toys much more often than girls, for example. These types of bias and expectation run deep, and it’s going to take some work to dig them out.
As for what we can do about all this, there are definitely some signs of progress. Construction has been looking at other industries for inspiration. Where there are transferable skills, ways to actually attract women from other trades are being found. Campaigns will only get you so far, though. By definition, they’re limited in duration and scope. It’s about changing a culture from the top down, and no single solution is going to fix every part of the problem. A big step, though, would be to kill off some of the most poisonous assumptions about what women actually want. They will travel for work and they don’t only want certain types of job. What’s more, when you start looking at what women genuinely do want, you start seeing that they benefit everyone. Flexible working hours, an effective complaints procedure and improved training techniques would be a boost to the whole industry.
Cultures have a funny way of influencing each other. The world is definitely watching when significant countries make a bold statement about the treatment of women. Making construction more open to women makes great business sense, and it’s a chance to show real leadership on the global stage. Surely that’s something worth building toward?