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Women on Site: Bridging the Gender Gap in the Construction Industry

women in construction
31 August 2018
Est. Reading: 4 minutes

Opinion

The construction industry is far from being synonymous with a robust female workforce. In fact, women make up an exceptionally low percentage of workers in this field, and without intervention, these stats show no sign of drastic change. There’s a multitude of compounding factors which account for the low uptake on construction-related roles by women.

The main offenders include the ever-present unconscious gender biases afflicting employers and young women deciding on a career path alike; there’s the outdated, clichéd perception of a building site as a toxic, hyper-masculine environment, or the common misconception that the main feature of every job is physical labour. Sure, there are some roles that still require heavy lifting (and there are talented, skilled women well able to manage those too), but in recent years a lot has been mechanised. On any given project, there are a wealth of professional opportunities that don’t list superhuman strength as a CV requirement.

In the realms of manufacturing, design, tech, academia, and research, previous pushes to get females into STEM are beginning to pay off. Each of these fields display a slow and steady increase in women in their respective industries. However, only a disproportionally low number of those ‘T’, ‘E’, and 'M’ graduates ever make it to the world of construction.

Women in Construction: Absent on Entry

According to the Women in Trades Network Ireland, less than 5% of construction workers on-site are women, while the number of females in trades apprenticeships doesn’t even hit 1%.  If your instinct is to go: ‘Ah, sure, that’s on site, there definitely must be millions of women in the legal, planning and development roles. Surely that will push that number up. Right?’ Nope. Actually, the Central Statistics Office estimates that only 5.5% of the workforce across all construction-related sectors are women and the number of women in senior management positions is chronically low. Meanwhile, SOLAS, a state agency dedicated to further education and training, revealed that only 34 of the current 10,000 apprenticeship placements are filled by women. In a report released earlier this year titled: ‘Women in the Construction Industry’, Mercury Engineering examined the reasons for, and impact of, these inherently negative stats in depth.

This problem is nothing if not systematic. The Department of Civil & Building Engineering at Loughborough University recently released a report highlighting a similar, albeit marginally better set of statistics relating to the UK. There, women represent 11% of the construction workforce but most of these jobs are office-based. It's actually only 2% of women who work in manual jobs. When it comes to technical roles, 9% of UK engineering professionals are female. This is compared to 18% in Spain, 20% in Italy and 26% in the forward-leaning Sweden.

Diversity and Skillsets

Although the industry is booming, Irish construction companies are facing a crisis with the increasing skills deficit. As identified in the Irish National Skills Strategy for 2025, we are presently in dire need of chartered surveyors, engineers, and graduates with training in internationalisation and management capability, ICT, Building Information Modelling (BIM) systems and Green Economy skills.

Switching Perceptions

It's a very human trait that people - including women or anyone from different cultural or socio-economic backgrounds - have a tendency to emulate what they see. Since there are such a scarcity of diverse mentors in leading construction roles, visibility and supports are key. Leading women in the industry should be allocated the time and financial support needed to recruit and teach others.

But who's responsibility is it to fix an issue that's deeply ingrained? Sure, company policies need to be put in place which address the biases related to gender and diversity, along with the disparity in pay and opportunities that go alongside them. While quotas in any industry are a hugely divisive topic, internal targets, and the supports to help reach them, are the base level required to achieve anything resembling balance.

As we can clearly see from the SOLAS figures, however, the damage is done well before a candidate is even qualified. This is where lobbying and marketing implemented by the government and the education system need to come into play.  It’s time to re-educate young people and tell the more rounded story of this evolving industry.  Construction is a modern, booming area of business which is constantly evolving and growing in scope. Why shouldn't this workforce be a reflection of this?

Change the Culture

The tech industry is leading the way when it comes to making efforts towards tipping the gender balance towards 50/50. They utilise the concept of ‘company culture’, and have reassessed things like schedules, workspaces, paternity leave, training, and childcare supports to be more family friendly. Schemes such as returnships and diverse mentorship schemes help when challenging the preconceptions as to who’s best suited to which kind of role. There’s no doubt that the nature of these two industries are vastly different, and what works for full-time employment is not comparable with location-based, project work. However, there are lessons and thought processes that can be learned and implemented.

Why Now?

What’s needed in construction is a revolution of sorts; a cultural shift and re-education of the workforce, starting from C-levels down. Across every industry, diversity is how businesses thrive; new innovative ideas and fresh voices mean dynamic growth and outside-the-box thinking. This isn’t about meeting a 20% quota, it’s about being inclusive, and creating a comfortable space with paths to leadership for people irrespective of gender, physical ability, sexuality or cultural background.

Developments like these take time, of course, but the first step towards any improvement is a conversation. Employers are the leaders in this industry, so if you are reading this and feeling motivated, contact the Women in Trades Network Ireland about the small changes you could implement today that will make all the difference tomorrow.

This article is a thought piece by writer, activist and academic, Gemma Creagh.

Build a career in construction and pop along to our Construction Jobs Expo 29th September. Women in construction are especially welcome - let's make it 7% by the end of the year!

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