Gender Balance in Construction

March 8, 2016

Can re-posting positive messages on social media help improve the gender balance in construction? I had the pleasure last night of delivering the COMIT guest lecture to second-year Construction Project Management and QS students at Oxford Brookes University. Part of our remit at COMIT is to engage with the next generation of construction professionals and this fixture has become a regular event on our calendar.

The lecture is primarily about the use of mobile computing in construction. However, I always find it helps to put things into context so I inevitably cover a number of broader issues - particularly those that influence the use of technology - as well as a bit of history.

Since yesterday was International Women's Day it made sense to touch on the issue of gender balance - or more accurately imbalance - in construction. This is something that I have always been aware of and during my time working in the industry I have been pleased to see improving.

However, it was not until I went hunting for some actual figures to use in my presentation that I realised just how bad the situation is. I was not surprised that construction is among the worst industries for gender imbalance, but at 12% I was surprised at just how bad it is. Especially since, as I mentioned earlier, I have seen significant improvements in my time in the industry.

 

When I first entered construction (some twenty years ago) female site engineers were virtually unheard of. Now, in some companies I deal with, close to 50% of new graduate engineers are women. And while it is still far from common to find women at senior management or board level, they no longer cause the raised eyebrows they used to.

 

This imbalance is something that has always be in evidence at COMIT community days. There have been a number of campaigns recently aimed at getting more women into engineering in general and into construction in particular. COMIT strongly supports these initiatives, but it is hard to know how best to help beyond re-posting positive messages on social media.

I was encouraged to see a number of women in the audience at Oxford Brookes and afterwards I spoke to Henry Abanda, Senior Lecturer and organiser of the event about the gender balance. Henry made a really interesting observation - although they had far fewer women on the course than men, the women tended to be among his best students.

I assumed this would be because they were more motivated - if they are seeking to join an industry that generally seems to discourage women and have overcome the societal expectation that it is a "male" career, then they must really want to be civil engineers. But Henry put me right. Almost without exception all the women on the course had relatives who already worked in the industry. Consequently they knew exactly what they wanted to do and exactly what they needed in order to do it.

For me this was a light-bulb moment. Women with first-hand knowledge of the industry know that it can be a rewarding and fulfilling career choice for them and while, given the poor gender balance, there are still many barriers, these are not significant enough for their relatives already in the industry to succeed in putting them off. In other words a large part of the problem is the perception of the industry by those without experience of it.

I believe this is reinforced by the furore that erupted around the Construction Computing Awards ("The Hammers") last November following the sexist nature of the entertainment booked for the event. While the organisers clearly failed in their duty to ensure the material was appropriate, what strikes me is that the comedian concerned equally clearly held the view that a "construction" event was akin to a old-fashioned northern working-men's club.

This point is made by some of the commentators on Sue Butcher's excellent blog about the night. Many of those within the industry found the "entertainment" offensive, but those providing it were not familiar with the industry and clearly thought it appropriate.

Given that women only make up about 12% of the construction workforce the industry clearly has a very long way to go. However, the improvements that have taken place over the last couple of decades are dramatic.

 

I would have imagined that would have been the hardest part - actually changing attitudes and the opportunities for women within the industry itself - but perhaps the hardest part is actually communicating those changes to the wider public.

Maybe re-posting positive messages on social media is not such an insignificant contribution to improving the gender balance in construction after all.

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