A year on from a Smith Institute report highlighting the need to attract women into construction, Coreena Ford analyses progress in the sector
It’s long been the situation that very few women work in construction-related careers, yet last year’s Smith Institute report still made for disappointing reading.
The London think tank’s report – titled Building The Future: Women In Construction – claimed women made up less than a meagre 1.2% of the sector’s tradespeople.
Fifty years ago that figure was at least closer to 4%.
As for women working as roofers, bricklayer and glaziers, the Office for National Statistics’ last employment survey found that the numbers were so low they were unmeasurable.
Yet the construction sector is enjoying something of a bounce back from the recession, with building activity unfolding across the UK as delayed and new developments for private and public sector projects get under way.
That activity means hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs are being created – many to plug the looming skills shortage created as workers retire as well as fill new roles – a challenging industry predicament that is providing real, ideal opportunities for women to get more involved.
The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) last year predicted around 180,000 new jobs will be needed nationally up to 2019, at least 2,000 of which will be here in the North East.
Several firms launched recruitment drives to seek out new employees – including Cussins Homes and Barratt Developments – and several other firms and organisations have been seeking to attract women, through link-ups with colleges and support for national campaigns.
Since the report’s publication, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of good news stories coming out of companies, highlighting women taking up roles across a range of careers and levels, suggesting that drives to raise awareness of roles and opportunities are working.
The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has introduced a drive to encourage more women and people from diverse backgrounds into construction roles – a drive that was stepped up last month with the launch of the Inclusive Employer Quality Mark, a new initiative to make the land, property and construction sector more inclusive and diverse.
Employers displaying the Inclusive Employer Quality Mark are asked to pledge commitment to adopting and continually improving against six principles, including increasing the diversity of the workforce, staff development and retention.
It’s retention which chartered architect Siobhan McMahon, of Durham, believes is the biggest issue that needs tackling.
With more than 20 years’ experience in the construction industry, Siobhan has worked in the UK, Ireland and Malaysia on public and private sector projects, getting involved in schemes worth anything from £20,000 to £50m, working with people from translating ideas into drawings, through to constructing building on site.
A firm fan of her hard hat and muddy boots as much as her office, she launched her own business Emerald Architects last year and she is also chair of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), a group whose growing membership can visibly demonstrate the huge range of careers you can take up in the sector.
“What we have found through NAWIC is that there is a lot of enthusiasm from graduates which is great,” she said.
“We can showcase women right across the industry who are working at every level, from those starting on the career ladder up to those who are retiring who have had fulfilled, fantastic careers, and through them we can show the great careers you can have.”
Siobhan believes numbers could well be rising – but retaining women coming through is the real task, in a vocation that the Smith Report found women were put off because of a perceived lack of flexibility with regards to working hours, workplace conditions and other barriers to a good work/life balance.
“Now that the economy is turning the construction sector is doing better, so you will see a rise in the number of women coming through,” she said. “It’s still lagging behind engineering, but that’s because of the big drive we’ve had over the last few years on STEM subjects, which has got younger people more involved.
“What we need is a similar drive for construction now.
“When I started my architecture training at university the course was split almost 50/50, male to female, at the start, but by the time I came to the second and third part of the training the numbers of women had dropped off dramatically.
“That’s the case right across the board in all male-dominated careers such as surveying and engineering, so attracting women isn’t the problem – it’s retaining them.
“There needs to be a refocus on why women are not staying in construction careers, because if they figure that out that’s when we’ll be able to retain them.
“There’s a perceived lack of flexibility, especially when you have kids, and that there’s not much support and that it gets more difficult.
“But there are ways around problems. That said, if you are a partner in the middle of an important design you can’t suddenly go part-time.
“As a woman you accept that you have to work harder to succeed, but because they chose this career they are by definition very good at what they do.”
Through her work with NAWIC Siobhan says she has seen evidence that efforts to attract women into the sector are paying off on the contracting side, within quantity surveying and through connected engineering roles, with many coming through at apprentice level.
“Many, like Cundall, have really good apprentice schemes and they all seem to be doing very well,” she said.
The consensus is, however, that awareness needs to be raised at school level, starting with careers advisors being given more information on the huge range of careers connected to the sector.
CITB research last March found that over a third of careers advisors in schools and colleges believed that construction is an unattractive career opportunity for both girls or boys.
60% also admitted they did not offer girls careers advice directly linked to sectors where there was available work and a high demand from local employers.
“I think careers advice in schools can be shockingly bad,” said Siobhan.
“They think it’s all hard hats and muddy boots. As soon as you use the phrase ‘built environment’ and talk to them about design and architecture they say ‘I never thought of it like that’, so children are being taught all wrong.
“Yet this sector has fantastic training schemes, from BTEC to degree level and above, and it is open to people on every academic level.
“I work with Constructing Excellence and other bodies to try to tackle this problem of education and get rid of this ‘hard hat and muddy boots’ stereotypical image, and re-education needs to happen at every level.
“I work with colleges between Middlesbrough, Redcar, Hartlepool and Sunderland campaigning for re-education and every woman who joins a Bishop Auckland College construction-related course gets free membership of NAWIC, giving instant access to a great network.
“It’s also about re-educating the next generation, teaching the lads that we are part of the team and can muck in with them, and that mixed teams in which women can give a different perception can give really positive results.”
Christine Curran, who has 15 years’ experience in land management, recently joined Galliford Try Partnerships (GRP) North – as one of two appointments made by the firm, joining Sara Holmes who took up the development director role.
Both are top level appointments affirming the company’s commitment to promoting the best people, regardless of gender.
Christine now heads up the company’s involvement with the £350m Gateshead Regeneration Partnership, putting her at the top of her game as Galliford Try’s development director with GRP, working alongside partners Gateshead Council and Home Group.
And some of her work will take her into schools in a bid to encourage the next generation into construction, where she believes dispelling stereotypes is helping to encourage young girls into careers like hers.
Christine, who has risen through the ranks in roles in land administration, buying and management, said: “I’m a woman in a male-dominated industry and, from experience, you have to work harder to prove your worth.
“But I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.
“Once people know and can see that you know what you’re doing, gender isn’t relevant.
“Construction is still male-dominated but I don’t think people understand the roles that are available – they think we’re all bricklayers.
“A lot of my job is facilitating and problem solving, so I work with planners, cost consultants, architects – the whole range – and having women on the team helps to deliver a better balance.”
Christine, who has two young children, aged three and 10 months, is also working with schools to change perceptions.
“I think firms are focused on raising awareness of roles for women, through events like enterprise days, involving local schools,” she said.
“When I was at Keepmoat I started going into schools and here at Galliford we have enterprise days once every couple of months.
“Rather than sitting children in front of a 20 minute video we go in to schools and start with a ‘What’s My Line’ game. And when they see me, they assume I work in a beauty parlour.
“They are really interested to see you don’t have to be a man to be in construction, so it’s all about making boys and girls aware of all the roles.
“There are days, like yesterday, when I’ll spend all day on site in hard hat and boots, but today I’m in the office – no two days are the same.
“On the first day we ask them to design their own site, and on the second day we take them to visit show homes, and we tailor the events to the age of the children, from six-year-olds up to GCSE year.
“Often youngsters have no aspirations to improve themselves but they really enjoy the enterprise events.”
With more than 20 years’ industry experience, Tanja Smith worked in South Africa for much of her early career and met Nelson Mandela through her work helping to regenerate the Lansdown Wetton Phillippi Corridor squatter camps in Cape Town.
Originally from South Africa, Tanja has been with Gradon Architecture since its inception in 2009 and is one of five women in the team, now executive director of the firm’s base in Mongolia which has resulted in some brilliant contract wins and tenders.
Her journey to the top role in Mongolia, however, hasn’t always been smooth.
She said: “My career started out in 1994 in a deep recession in Cape Town. I managed to find work at an electrical engineer’s drawing office, where I hit the first hurdle in my career. The firm’s policy was that once I had graduated, I was supposed to be moved up to a ‘professional’ title and given the benefits that went with it.
“The firm would be unlikely to ever admit it, but I was held back because I was a woman. Never in the 100 years of the business had the department had a female with a professional title.
“It took a tribunal to sort that out. Eventually I was promoted and soon after I was seconded to the City Planners and Urban Design Unit, which was the best thing that could have happened.”
Soon after, she moved to the UK, got to grips with the culture, the way architecture is done in the UK, and different rules and technologies.
“When I arrived in the UK architecture was still male-dominated and there was a divide between the old school style practices and those who were more progressive.
“There was certainly a divide on the gender issue, which influenced how far women could expect to climb.
“Times have gladly moved on, but nevertheless the gender issue is one that is still grappled with globally.
Now based in Mongolia, she has overseen some dynamic projects and the firm’s Ulan Bator office is down to the last three in a deal to design a landmark £200m entertainment, residential and commercial centre in the country’s capital.
She is also involved in the North East region of NAWIC, organising various events for women in the construction industry both regionally and nationally.
She said: “There is certainly a place for women in the construction industry. Now more than ever, with changes in technology and the advancement of materials, architecture needs to have diversity and to achieve this we need to have a mix of genders.
“I would encourage anybody who has an interest in any construction industry related career to pursue that interest. There’s a massive variety of roles in the industry and pretty much no limit to what you can get involved in, be it legal, design or numbers based, HR or sales.
“We need skills from all walks of life and the construction industry is so broad that there will be areas that appeal to just about anybody.
“There is a definite drive for equality and diversity across more North East firms. While there are still struggles and glass ceilings do exist, there is a massive change taking place and, as the younger generations come through, this should hopefully become a thing of the past.
“Certainly at Gradon Architecture we are acutely aware of ensuring that everybody is treated equally. I would hope that this way of thinking affects every business in the UK, not just the North East.
“There is ,however, a massive disparity in the number of women working in construction in the UK than there is in Mongolia, and the UK doesn’t compare favourably.
“When I arrived in Mongolia I was amazed as to how many women sit at boardroom level. This really brought it home how far the UK still has to go to address the gender imbalance.
“NAWIC are a group of women who love the industry and would love to see changes happen.
“We want to provide support for fellow female professionals and encourage younger people coming through, providing them with support that we never had.
“We get involved in careers talks in schools, colleges and universities and have a mentoring system for anyone who needs assistance and guidance.
“We also offer a service whereby students can read very candid ‘day in the life’ type articles from architects and planners. This way they gain a real insight into their chosen career.”
Tanja agrees wholeheartedly that raising better awareness is key.
She added: “Schools don’t fully understand just how diverse the construction industry is and so are unable to convey the range of opportunities on offer to students.
“Certainly in my experience of NAWIC talks, it is a revelation that there is a vast array of choice out there and yes, a place for women too.
“One thing that will never change is the fact that women are the child bearers. Maternity is not just a construction industry issue, but it would be good if the industry took a more proactive role in assisting women who want to have families.
“At the end of the day you cannot change the fact that the construction industry involves dirt, bricks and mortar and this won’t appeal to every woman.
“However, I would like to think that girls know that they are able to get involved in the industry if they want to. It won’t defeminise them in any way.
“There are opportunities for women to be part of doing something amazing in the construction industry and to work with incredible people who, when working well together, achieve great things.”
Source: Newcastle Chronicle – http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/business/business-news/building-future-north-east-women-9424055