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How far have women progressed in the UK construction industry?


Owen Goodhead, MD of Randstad Construction, Property & Engineering, which provides permanent and temporary recruitment solutions for the construction, property and engineering sectors.

The Shard London Bridge
The Shard London Bridge


It wasn’t so long ago that seeing a woman on a building site would have been a rare thing indeed. The industry was dominated almost entirely by men with women consigned to office-based or secretarial roles if they ventured into the arena at all.


The construction industry’s lack of diversity isn’t helped by the fact it has long been saddled with a poor public image. Despite lengthy positive recruitment campaigns, the stereotypical cowboy builders and loud-mouthed labourers still linger in people’s minds, thanks to negative media portrayals, no matter how far from the reality they actually are.


Women haven’t always played a minor part in the industry however, and in the course of history they have at times had quite significant involvement. The building industry was one of the first to emerge and shape Britain but women were initially largely excluded. Construction was long considered a masculine profession and apprenticeships in building trades were mostly held by men. Some women however, did get involved with construction, taking over their husband’s business upon his death.


The severe shortage of men during the First World War led to women being taken on in traditional male roles, often successfully completing training courses in a fraction of the time previously allowed. However, they were not welcomed by men or trade unions, earned significantly less and once the war was over they were ejected from their jobs back into more traditional employment.


World War Two saw another peak in women in construction as the numbers of men signing up to fight, left Britain with acute worker shortages. Once again, there was some discrepancy between the wages of men and women working side by side doing the same job and just as it was after the First World War, once war was over women were directed back towards more traditional roles.


The steady rise of women in construction


Times have thankfully changed though and there has been a steady increase in the numbers of women entering the construction industry in the last 50 years. According to Randstad CPE, women now account for 20% of all construction workers and are expected to account for 26% by 2020.


The number of women in senior roles has increased from 6% in 2005 to 16% in 2015 and 49% of women now describe their employers as “very” or extremely “supportive” of them.


The number of women doing traditionally female jobs within construction, such as secretarial or admin roles, has also dropped from 9% to just 3% with more women than ever embarking on careers as engineers, architects and surveyors.


Women role models, such as Roma Agrawal, one of the structural engineers on the Shard and Holly Porter, director of Surface to Air Architects, who runs the networking group Chicks with Bricks, are also helping to change the face of the industry.


The position at grass roots level is more mixed however, with women still only accounting for 2% of manual construction workers, according to the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB). It is a 100% increase on the figure from a decade ago, but still a very low base from which to start.


To add to this, there is evidence to suggest a pay gap still exists with 41% of women believing men are paid more than them and 34% citing a metaphorical “glass ceiling” as one of the factors stopping women in construction rising to the top.


Owen Goodhead, Randstad Construction’s MD, said: “Construction has become significantly more professional in recent years in terms of technology and working practices. This drive

towards professionalism can only be applauded but it needs to go hand in hand with equal treatment of female workers too.”


Encouraging women into construction


There is still some way to go before the gender divide in construction is really kicked into touch but various initiatives are helping to close the gap. Many companies operate positive recruitment campaigns and according to Randstad Construction’s research, just 29% of women now report their company is dong nothing special to recruit women compared to an overwhelming 79% a decade ago.


One such company, Vinci Construction, has made a conscious effort to recruit more women into the business.


Joanne Mercer, head of operational development, said: “A focus on supporting female role models has seen us increase the proportion of women in professional and technical roles by 11% and across the workforce by 50%.”


As well as individual company schemes, various national initiatives are also helping to change the public face of the construction industry and encourage women to consider non-traditional careers. Construction Youth launched its “Not Just For Boys” campaign in September 2015 to dispel the myth construction jobs are just for men.


More than half of the CITBs board members are now female and UCATT, the UK’s only trade union specialising in construction has also been running a campaign aimed at dramatically increasing the numbers of female construction worker members.


Owen Goodhead said: “By employing women at all levels and using their extensive abilities, any skills gap will hopefully be avoided and construction will continue to be the backbone of the UK economy for many years to come.”


Photo: Wikimages

Thank you to Bethany Cornell for her assistance in organising this post, WHN Admin.

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