A woman’s place is on a building site, according to a growing number of female engineers, site managers, quantity surveyors and architects. Women have made substantial inroads into construction industry jobs over the past decade, but there’s a long way to go to make this male-dominated, testosterone-driven industry more inclusive and diverse.
Females are climbing to the top as crane drivers and showing their mettle as steel fixers. But when it comes to trade roles such as bricklaying and pipe fitting, women make up a tiny proportion of the staff – under 1%.
Former carpenter Kath Moore is managing director of Women into Construction, a not-for-profit group which runs training schemes with building companies to help them hire more women.
“There are real opportunities women can take part in and we have no trouble recruiting them,” she says. “Construction is a well-paid job and offers great opportunities for progression.”
Overall, women make up about 12.5% of the UK’s construction industry workforce, mainly in engineering, design and administrative jobs. The industry has launched a push to increase female participation with some firms committing to achieving a 50:50 male and female ratio. Construction company Wates Group has announced it is working with WiC to bring 125 women into the industry by 2025.
Women are put off the industry partly by fears of on-site sexism – 72% of female construction workers in a survey said they had experienced some form of gender discrimination in 2019. There’s also a perception that this is back-breaking, dusty and dirty work.
“Because there are so few women in the trades, there isn’t much in the way of a role model for other women,” Moore notes.
“We are certainly seeing more women interested in engineering, quantity surveying and construction management roles. Some of the women we have on site have said having more women in those senior positions makes for a much more pleasant site environment and makes it easier for them as tradeswomen to be accepted and get on with their work.”
Other countries are making strides in recruiting women to construction. In the more heavily unionised US and in Australia and Scandinavian countries, women have higher representation, Moore says. “We are lagging in this country,” she adds.
WiC is working with construction companies to run courses for steel fixers, who arrange steel structures for buildings, and another for form makers, who make the moulds for concrete.
The industry still has few senior female leaders, though this is gradually changing. Earlier this year, housebuilder Taylor Wimpey promoted operations director Jennie Daly to chief executive, working alongside chairman Irene Dorner. Meanwhile infrastructure services company Amey is led by CEO Amanda Fisher. But there are precious few examples of female leaders among senior staff in construction. To attract more women, having well-defined routes to promotion and some strong role models in senior management roles will be vital.
One advocate for female trade roles is TikTok influencer Darcie Richards, a bricklayer whose videos encourage women to get involved. She shows the fun side of working on a building site – working outdoors, the sense of achievement in finishing a job, the fascination with the different techniques involved. This type of social media advocacy is important in attracting a more diverse workforce into the industry.
An important driver for increasing female participation is the skills shortage which is hitting construction. With fewer European workers after Brexit and the pandemic, and many construction and engineering staff reaching retirement age, the industry faces a staffing crunch as many significant building and infrastructure projects get under way. But improving diversity has broader positive effects too, says a spokesman for construction company BAM.
“The benefit of having more women is that it enriches the quality of decision-making on construction projects,” he says.
As a building management company, BAM works with clients and companies on building stores, hospitals, leisure centres and offices. “The public are using the facilities on a daily basis, so it’s important to have a diverse workforce because you get a more holistic view of how the buildings are used and need to be designed and built to satisfy the people who are using them. This is how you get a richness of decision-making that isn’t male-centric,” he says.
He adds that there is evidence in the industry that productivity goes up when you get more women in the workforce.
Persuading more girls to consider careers in construction is a task for schools and parents. Lucy Ellis, a geotechnical engineer working on rail infrastructure at Laing O’Rourke, says she was encouraged by her father, himself an engineer and able to help her get work experience.
Her work for Laing O’Rourke involves problem-solving on sites, leading contractors and making sure work is undertaken in a safe manner.
Ellis believes attitudes about women in construction are lagging behind the reality.
“The outside perception of the industry is changing at a much slower rate than the industry itself.
“We’re also bringing in a wider community of minorities, ethnic minorities and disabled people. We’re making this industry more approachable for people who previously didn’t feel it was for them,” Ellis says.
While there may still be sexist dinosaurs in the industry, she says that in her experience most male colleagues have been more than happy to help female workers. “Females aren’t coming into the industry and being pushed out by males. During most of my career, the men I’ve worked with have pulled me up and helped me get to the position that I am in today and they are really encouraging future generations whether that be their daughters or helping with recruitment events.”
To attract more women, construction needs to breed new kind of man too: those who are committed to making the aim for diversity a reality.