National Women in Engineering Day: O women, where art thou?

Women remain woefully underrepresented in the construction sector accounting for just 11% of the workforce despite the fact that the industry is headed for a very real skills crisis.

Women account for 50% of staff in financial services and 46% of doctors yet represent just 11% of the construction workforce. This figure drops down to as little as 1% of the manual trades while the Office for National Statistics noted that the number of women who work as roofers, bricklayers and glaziers were so low as to be immeasurable in its recent national survey.

Research by the NHBC Foundation has revealed that while a third of boys and young men are interested in building and construction only one in 10 girls and young women are interested – the lowest level of interest of any sector included in the study. More than a quarter of young people cited poor image as a barrier.

From the outside the construction sector seems to be suffering from an image problem yet there are many examples of successful women paving a career for themselves within the industry.

“I have personally never experienced any sexism or prejudice in the workplace,” says Lucy Homer, head of design, construction – Europe at Lend Lease. “I believe I have got to where I am because of my abilities and particular skill set. As an employer myself I am only interested in whether the person doing the job is capable and ideally excels at it.”

Building surveyor Dayle Bayliss, who runs Dayle Bayliss Associates, agrees. “I think it is an industry where you are judged on your merits, not ob your sex,” she says. “If you do a good job you are respected for that.”
Jackie Biswell, director at Apex Roofing, started her career in roofing in 1989 having first come into the construction sector as a receptionist. She says that she has never had any issues working in a male-dominated environment but thinks that perception of what it is like to work with men is a significant barrier to many women.

Marta de Sousa, who has run her international property development company LUX Reality for six years, has recently launched the Building Girls Up campaign to improve the image of the construction sector among young people.

She has teamed up with Jo Wallace, creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi in London to “rebrand” the industry and show 16 to 18-year-old young women what opportunities are available to them.

“The perception of the construction industry is that it is a male-dominated world and women aren’t allowed in,” says de Sousa. “It is this pre-conceived notion of the industry so what we want to do is rebrand it and show that it is accessible and cool and it is also a career path that women can take and be very successful in.”

Leonora Saunders, a photographer who has worked extensively on projects exploring diversity and gender, celebrating female role models and looking at women working in male-dominated industries has taken a series of photographs of women at work within the construction sector as part of the campaign.

Backed by the Government’s Inspiring the Future programme De Sousa will be taking the campaign into schools, initially in London, where she will highlight the opportunities that are available within the industry.
Education is key to encouraging young women into the construction industry agrees Sarah Davis, managing director of Skills4Stem and co-founder of Women in Building Services Engineering (WIBSE), who believes that children should be learning about roles within the construction sector at a young age.

“The CBI sent me a document – they had written a research paper on STEM – and it says that by the time children leave primary school at 10/11 they have made a decision about what their careers are so I don’t think that we are putting enough resources into young children,” she said.

“I believe that education starts in Key Stage 1 which is four to seven year olds. When they are talking about firemen, policemen and post office workers they should be talking about architecture and engineering and contracting and all of these great opportunities and even what business roles might be available in the supply chain because there are some great careers in the supply chain,” explains Davis.

Homer wanted to study A Level Art, Physics and Maths at the all girls’ school, which she attended, but Art and Maths clashed on the timetable and the school was in her words “very inflexible” forcing her to study Art at an evening class at the local college.

Fortunately she achieved A grades in both subjects but she says: “If I had not been the proactive type of person that I am and ended up dropping either Maths or Art it would have prevented all sorts of future design careers.”

“You are never going to get 50% of the workforce being women if only 10% of the people at university studying built environment are women so there needs to be a huge push at school and college,” says Christine Townley, executive director of the Construction Youth Trust.

“I think we need some programmes of engagement at school level that give girls a real understanding of what construction is all about. It is about reinforcing, encouraging and nurturing and it is about saying you can.”
Biswell says “I think that schools and the government are now pro-actively promoting the vision that anyone can be anything they want and that roles should not be stereotyped by gender.

“However there is still a lot more to be done – I think it’s a long game and it’s about starting to work with the youth and those who haven’t yet developed any particular stereotypes about the industry.”
It is difficult for teachers to advocate career options to young people says Davis when they often don’t really understand them.

Townley agrees that teachers are very often unaware of the breadth of opportunities available within the construction sector but says that it is unfair to criticise them as “they would have to know 27 sectors inside out which they can’t”. She believes that the industry needs to come together collectively to promote the sector to girls and young women.

A failure to attract more women into the construction sector could have a significant impact on its future says Meg Munn MP, vice-chair of the Women in Enterprise All-Party Parliamentary Group, in her introduction to the Smith Institute’s report “Building the future: women in construction”, which says that there are “serious problems on the horizon for the construction industry” with one in five workers approaching retirement age and a further 26% aged between 45 and 55 years old.

“Replacing these retirees alone presents a big recruitment challenge,” she says. “In addition research by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) in January 2014 estimated that 182,000 extra jobs will be created in the next five years as the economy improves.”

As the need for new homes increases the CITB has estimated that housing will account for 37% of the UK’s total annual construction output between now and 2018.

“There is a vital need to recruit to ensure that the industry has the workers it needs for the future,” says Munn. “This 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.”

Global specialist recruiter Randstad Construction, Property & Engineering says that women will fill one in four construction jobs by 2020 but warns that a “cultural revolution is needed by the end of the decade if UK construction is to reach its true potential.”

Its managing director Owen Goodhead said: “Construction is about laying the foundations of a prosperous future. So the industry can’t afford to be stuck in the past.

“In a rapidly expanding industry, every ounce of ability needs to be harnessed. Companies that are addressing the issues facing women in the workplace will have access to a greater pool of talent, and will be able to make the most of the opportunity on offer in a fresh climate of growth.

“By contrast, any complacency on this front will have a clear cost. Businesses that exclude women, even accidentally, will feel the effect on the bottom line.”

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