What's it Like to be a Woman in Construction?

In the coming weeks COMIT will be running a series of articles by women working in construction about some of the issues they face. This post is by way of introduction.

Image source Department of Transport licensed under Creative Commons

Construction needs talented people. We have a skills shortage and our workforce is ageing – and that is happening worldwide.

Why then, as an industry, are we effectively ignoring half the working population? Every other talented person out there is a women and year after year we are failing to recruit and retain them.

In total women only make up about 11% of the construction workforce. Among site-based trades it is just 1%. Among senior managers and board members it is almost certainly much lower.

This situation is crazy. Construction is second only to the mining industry in its apparent inability to utilise female talent. Some countries have more women serving in their front-line armed forces than we have in our industry. Why?

Part of it is historical accident. Part of it is because we fail to promote what working in construction can really offer. Part of it is because the media is still fixated by an out-dated stereo-typical view of our industry that it all too readily trots out. But part of it, a big part of it, is simply because of how we treat women in the workplace.

I’m not necessarily talking about overt discrimination, misogyny or sexual harassment – although they certainly happen and need to be stamped out. I’m talking about the constant, low-level, casual sexism that can just suck the joy out of work for so many of our female colleagues.

I am also talking about the inane, juvenile tendency to constantly use sexualised images of women to promote construction products and services. I know we live in a sexualised society but I look around at other professions and quite frankly, by comparison, construction needs to grow up.

Perhaps the most overt example of this phenomenon is the use of “booth babes” at trade shows – presumably to attract the attention of a male-dominated audience. This had been in decline lately but sadly at the recent UK Construction Week in Birmingham they were back again.

I’ve heard all the arguments that this is just advertising and market-driven, that it adds “glamour” to events and that the women concerned are paid professionals exercising their personal choice. But for me, that is not the point. Even ignoring the feminist arguments and what I personally think is an unhealthy sexualisation of women in the workplace, for me there is a more fundamental problem.

I have an nine-year-old daughter who has expressed an interest in engineering and construction. If I take her to a construction trade show and the most prominent (and often only) women she sees are those adorning the displays, what message does that give her about how the industry would value her talents as opposed to her looks?

If I went to an event staffed solely by women with male models the only men in attendance, I know how alienated I would feel. Rightly or wrongly we look to role models of our own gender and in construction female examples are sadly few.

To repeat, construction needs talented people and all employees deserve to be respected and to have a rewarding career determined by their own merits – regardless of gender, colour, creed, sexual orientation or physical limitations. Company policies and HR departments cannot make that happen – it is down to each and every one of us that works in the industry.

Rather than just add another male voice to the debate, I have asked a number of talented women working in construction to describe their own personal experience. To really improve things we need to really understand the issues and only the women working in our industry can tell us what those issues really are.

COMIT will publish these accounts over the coming weeks because we believe it can be better and it will be better and that thankfully it is slowly getting better, but we need to accelerate that change. One thing is certain; the problem is not with women in construction but rather with our attitude towards them.


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