Girl Power - Why aren't more women working in construction?

In the UK, only 11% of the construction workforce, from boardroom to site, are female. Of the people on site, only 1% are female, and the Office of National Statistics has stated that the number of women working as roofers, bricklayers and glaziers is so low that it's actually unmeasurable. So why is this? There's no avoiding the fact that there's a gender stereotype of someone who works in construction - male. This comes from centuries of traditional gender roles, and the assumption that these roles 'just aren't made for women', because they tend to be more physically demanding, and are difficult to balance with childcare (another role typically assigned to one gender, but this time it's women). 

In a survey by UCATT (Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians), it was found that more than half (51%) of women in construction said they were treated worse at work because of their gender. In addition, there's a lack of career prospects for women, lower pay than their male counterparts and a feeling of isolation on the job. 4 in 10 women identified examples of bullying and harassment in the workplace, and 3 in 10 were afraid to complain about these issues to management . A quarter of women said they had been forced to share toilet facilities with men, and 15% said it was difficult to find PPE (personal protective equipment) that fits properly. In terms of lack of career prospects, this often comes after women return to work after having had a baby. The lack of flexibility offered in construction roles means it is difficult to juggle childcare and a return to their original role, which is why so many women end up in office roles e.g.. admin, resulting in lower pay. Being able to negotiate hours and schedules so that you can use the skills that got you the job in the first place is essential, and could also attract women from other industries with transferrable skills. 

The barriers that women face when returning to work directly affect the significant gender pay gap in the construction industry, and it currently stands at a whopping 45.4%, with women paid an average of £8.04 an hour, and men paid an average of £14.74 an hour. Another reason is women are much less likely to negotiate their starting salary when they first get a job, and this exacerbates as they continue up the ladder, becoming more significant over time. You could blame women for this - why don't they just negotiate? But for it to be such a widespread problem, there must be a legitimate reason why they refrain from doing so. It most likely arises from from a lack of confidence, due to a distinct lack of female role models in the industry. It can be intimidating, entering a world full of men, some of whom might not think you're up to the job, so negotiating increased pay before you've even got your foot in the door, takes a lot of courage. 

Before women face all these issues, they've actually got to be interested in the industry, and that's a struggle in itself when the opportunities are rarely promoted to the female population while they're considering their career paths. From 1000 young women surveyed, only 13% had been given information about roles in construction, and the lack of successful female role models could mean there's not much to aspire to.

Everyday sexism is a term that tends to get people's backs up before you've even had the chance to explain what it means. It categorically does not mean that colleagues go out of their way to make sexist jokes, don't listen to your opinion and assume things about you because of your gender and use this to demean you in the workplace. Of course, that absolutely does happen, and it's a serious issue that needs to be addressed, and along with sexual harassment, can happen to both men and women, and comes from a deep-rooted superiority that no-one has the right to. But everyday sexism is probably a harder issue to tackle, because it comes in the form of jokes that aren't meant to be hurtful, but that when you're a woman who's been the butt of the same jokes for most of your adult life, can be offensive and generally quite annoying. It also shows itself when people assume that women in construction don't have the knowledge or skills of men, and therefore don't get asked for their opinion on issues that they're just as qualified to address. 

So, what can be done about these issues? It's pretty simple actually. 

  • First, try to implement the advertising of roles and careers in construction to girls and young women, and normalise it. Get hold of successful women in the industry and get them to speak about how they got where they are, and how they got over the difficulties they faced.
  • Aim to change the attitudes based on traditional gender roles which, in a lot of people's minds, no longer exist anyway. The generations growing up in today's world don't question women doing the same jobs as men, so hopefully in the near future, the representatives of the construction industry will feel the same, and work harder to encourage women to join the ranks. 
  • Put in place ways for women to come back to their roles after having had children e.g.. training on aspects of the job that have changed since they were away etc, and make it easier to negotiate hours and salaries once they're back. Appreciate that these women have invaluable skills that shouldn't be wasted. 
  • Think about what is appropriate for the workplace in regards to jokes - don't make jokes that undermine people for something they can't do anything about.

This is a really tough issue to talk about, because there's always a danger of people feeling attacked for doing things they've always done, and having opinions they've grown up with, but it's just about thinking a bit differently and listening to the concerns of everyone, even if you don't think they're valid. That way, problems and issues can be dealt with and skills and opportunities can be shared, benefiting the construction industry as a whole.