Women in the construction industry
This article originally appeared as 'Finding a balance - women in the industry' in BSRIA's Delta T magazine, November 2015. It was written by Saryu Vatal, Design Manager, Willmot Dixon
The building industry makes use of a wide range of technical and non-technical skills and expertise, making a contribution of over £92 billion to the UK’s economy. Despite this, there is a noticeably low representation of women in the industry.
Women make up only 11% of the construction workforce in the UK and just 1% of workers on site, with the proportion of those with specialist skills including roofers, bricklayers and glaziers being so low as to be practically unmeasurable.
The UK also has the lowest proportion of female engineers in Europe, making up only 14% of entrants to engineering and technology first degree courses and a much smaller 3.4% of all engineering apprentices.
According to figures from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Manufacturing), excluding health-related occupations, the percentage of women in science, technology and engineering occupations has increased in the last few years, to a still very modest 13%.
Organisations such as the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) have carried out surveys to get an understanding of the issues faced by women in the industry. There are several perceptions that people have, within and from outside the industry, that directly impact the uptake of jobs by women.
 Work environment
A common perception of the building industry is that the work generally involves hard physical labour in sometimes harsh and potentially unsafe conditions, especially for women. The construction industry has come a long way in addressing the work conditions on site, with schemes such as the Considerate Constructors Scheme in place to ensure that the construction process is responsible and respectful of the people and resources involved and impacted.
Traditionally the work force in this industry has been male dominated and recent surveys have indicated that women in the industry have felt isolated or discriminated against due to their gender. There are however, encouraging signs across the industry, with women fulfilling a range of different roles and their contributions being acknowledged.
 Differential treatment
The issue of the gender biased glass ceiling has had a lot of attention in the last few years, with the Government setting out a plan to address this issue across all industries. Women form nearly half the workforce in the UK and, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), are paid 9.4% less on an average. For the construction industry, this figure is slightly higher, with women being paid 12% less than their male counterparts carrying out the same role.
It is however, encouraging to note that this gap is narrowing steadily and will benefit greatly from the government-backed initiatives.
For this industry specifically, there have generally been a lack of training opportunities for women as the roles have been traditionally perceived to be male orientated. This naturally leads to fewer opportunities for promotions and a shortage of women at higher positions in organisations. There is a higher level of consciousness towards this bias now and a change in the trend can be seen. It is important to remember that the construction industry incorporates a wide range of skills, knowledge and work opportunities.
 Opportunities in the industry
The industry offers opportunity for people with a wide range of skills and knowledge sets. Over the last few years we have seen a rise in cross-discipline collaborations which have widened the employability criteria for people keen to become involved. Training and apprenticeship programmes have been set up to allow for people to learn on the job and make vital contributions to the workforce. Programmes such as the Knowledge Transfer Partnership have gone a long way in supporting the link between industry and academia.
One of the most significant barriers to more women joining the construction industry is the perception and image of the industry. What were once labour intensive processes have now been significantly streamlined and mechanised, with a much larger role for cross discipline and technical input. The industry has come a long way in the recent years to incorporate and encourage diversity to its workforce and will continue to do so.
Groups such as WIBSE (Women in Building Services Engineering (a CIBSE Network)) and WISE (a campaign to promote women in science, technology and engineering) have been set up specifically to support women in the industry, from the development of skills and techniques to addressing barriers and resistance they may encounter.
Maternity rights for employees are now protected by law and a large proportion of organisations will support a working from home arrangement to help employees where possible. This by no means implies that there is no scope for discrimination and work still needs to be done while defining who is eligible for these rights. The construction industry offers flexibility of work timing by employing a large proportion of its workforce on contractual basis, which by definition does not lend itself to a number of benefits and protection that full time employees enjoy.
The government has taken up the challenge and is trying to address the issue across the whole of the UK’s workforce not just the construction industry. In the Conservative's manifesto they promised to require companies with over 250 employees to publish the difference between their average wage for male and female employees. A consultation running from July 2015 to September 2015 asked for further comment on this policy however, equally as important, the consultation also asked for views on the wider action that can be taken to 'inspire girls and young women, modernise workplaces and support older working women’.
Nicky Morgan, Education Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, states that if we could equalise women’s productivity and employment to the same level as men’s we could add almost £600 billion to the economy which would cover a third of the UK’s national debt. If the figures are correct then it makes good business sense to not only employ more women but to encourage their productivity levels in the same way that the industry encourages men.
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