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Women in Construction: Challenging Gender Inequality

Women in Construction: Challenging Gender Inequality

The conversation about challenging gender inequality in construction has been gaining traction for several years. While there has been some research into the representation of women in the construction industry, the figures haven’t shown signs of improving. In Brigid Fancis Devine and Niamh Foley’s study of Women and the Economy, it was revealed that construction is one of several sectors, where only a small proportion of jobs are held by women — just 15% of the UK construction workforce is made up of women. This figure has hovered around 10-15% for several years, but at a time when the industry is growing and simultaneously facing a skill shortage, huge efforts must be made to incentivise more women to join the construction workforce.

According to the Construction Industry Training Board’s (CITB) Construction Skills Network, forecasts indicate that we can expect to see 168,500 construction jobs created between 2019 and 2023 — up from the 2018-2022 figure of 158,000. The Real Face of Construction study of 2020 explores how the next decade will see a huge loss in workers in the construction industry as many employees reach pension age. From this, we can determine that the rate that new workers begin a career in the construction industry will not currently match the rate at which so many will retire. While this Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) study does mention efforts to increase the number of women in construction, we will examine why those numbers are so low and what exactly you can do to address that. 

Education for Women and Young Girls

Addressing the low number of women in construction starts at school age. Girls must feel that a career in the construction industry is both feasible and appealing to lay the foundations for these opportunities in later life. STEM learning (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is largely favoured by male students, but both parents and teachers can encourage girls to explore an interest in engineering from a young age. The Equity and STEM Report explores how male pupils are more likely to be called upon by teachers to get actively involved in STEM, and how this can affect girls choosing STEM subjects. 

When appealing to young people, you can’t underestimate the importance of representation. Young girls need to see role models that look like them to feel inspired and to be able to truly visualise themselves in an industry like construction. Celebrating successful women in construction and showcasing historical women in the industry is a great way to push back against gender stereotypes.

Features like Go Construct’s Female Firsts in Construction are a great example of resource materials often overlooked when trying to appeal to women and girls. Career options in construction must be well promoted to girls — what are they? What do they entail? — but it’s also important to showcase examples of women that have been working in the industry and have made successful careers. From the founding members of the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919 to modern day examples like Carol Bell, Deputy Project Manager of the Eden Project and Suzannah Nichol MBE, Chief Executive of Build UK, the representation of women in the industry matters. 

Harmful Stereotypes That Affect Women in Construction

Having historically been a male-dominated industry, it can take a long time for a sector to shake that reputation. That, combined with women long being considered the weaker sex, perpetuates two harmful stereotypes that can make construction seem like a hostile working environment for women. 

Physical barriers are another factor preventing women from entering the construction workforce — especially for more manual on-site roles. For example, personal protective equipment (PPE) is fitted to a male body as standard. In the UK, employers are required to provide PPE, and if women are required to wear PPE on-site and it doesn’t fit a woman’s body, then this can be a barrier. The concept of PPE regulations is that it should be fit for purpose, fit for use, and fit for the individual. Unsafe PPE for women results in higher risk to the health and safety of women on-site, through no fault of their own. 

There isn’t much data available on injuries to women in construction, especially in the UK, but the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH) refers to a US study of union carpenters that found that “women had higher rates of sprains, strains and nerve conditions of the wrist and forearm than men”. The NYCOSH similarly notes that “standard hand tools like wrenches tend to be too large for women’s hands to grip tightly”. If women are being encouraged to consider a career in construction, they have to be better accommodated once they get there. 

Culture has a huge influence on making an environment feel accessible, and construction is a male-dominated industry. Construction companies should continue to help eradicate these stereotypes for their own benefit, as well as the benefit of women entering the workplace. Unintentional practices can have a detrimental effect on the number of women we see in construction. Construction recruitment often involves word of mouth, and if your workplace is vastly male populated already, it may be more likely that employees will be telling their male peers about vacancies, meaning that women won’t come across them as a result. 

The Gender Pay Gap in the Construction Industry

The gender pay gap has been a hot topic in all industries in recent years with the UK introducing a requirement for companies to report this publicly. The gender pay gap is the difference in the average hourly wage of all men and women across a workforce, not to be confused with unequal pay. To get an insight into how the gender pay gap presents in construction, consider the Rewards and Attitudes survey featuring the UK statistics in the built environment and property sectors. The gender pay gap figures are pretty staggering, and they provide more insight into why women may be deterred from working in construction. Construction is one of the worst sectors with a gender pay gap at 20% in the 2019 survey. The UK average gender pay gap isn’t particularly encouraging at 18%, but the construction industry is higher than average.

Some encouraging figures show that more women are entering the industry at early ages, but there is still a gender pay gap at this stage in their career, as men are paid 3.5% more than women at entry-level. The disparity in base salary for men and women significantly increases as they get older, reaching as high as 23% for workers aged 46-65. 

When bonuses are taken into consideration, women in construction experience a dramatically lower bonus offering. The MacDonald & Company survey demonstrates that male workers aged 46-65 receive 250% more in bonuses than women of the same age. This goes some way to explaining why women often don’t stay in the construction industry long term. While efforts can be made to encourage women to consider a career in construction, if they are not fairly rewarded in the later stages of their career, the industry will lose valuable workers. Bonuses are a huge contributing factor to retaining staff, and while the gender pay gap in the early stages of a career in this industry is encouraging for base salary, the report also shows that bonuses for 18-26-year-olds are 160% higher for men than for women. 

If women in senior positions are not being fairly compensated compared to their male counterparts, it’s hardly surprising that there’s a shortage of women in construction. This consolidates the findings in the Women and the Economy report that discovered that — when examining SMEs with employees — only 8% of SME employers are female-led in the construction, transportation and storage sector. Here we have a shortage of not only female workers but female leaders. 

Benefits of a Diverse Workforce

A diverse workplace is an asset to any industry. Having a more gender-balanced work environment is a huge benefit to roles that include problem-solving, and having a more diverse staff will result in broader ideas and approaches to problems. Women and men can think differently, so companies will benefit from having fresh approaches and different strategies. As well as added perspectives, a diverse workforce can also increase creativity and productivity. 

From a brand point of view, a more equal gender balance will have a positive impact on a company’s reputation. This is especially true for construction companies where the industry is typically lagging when it comes to gender-balanced working environments. 

For guidance on creating a diverse work environment, take the first step by joining CHAS and gaining access to leading risk management services. Become a CHAS contractor, and gain access to risk management tools, materials and nationally-recognised accreditation programmes. Once you become an accredited member, you can demonstrate your compliance with risk management legislation to clients and prequalify for more work opportunities.

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