By Danielle Le Breton, HR Director at Lanes Group
In an era where the importance of gender balance is increasingly acknowledged, HR leaders across multiple sectors are ingraining this principle into their hiring processes. However, this positive shift also casts a revealing light on industries that have yet to catch up.
The construction industry serves as a case in point. UK labour market stats for the second quarter of 2023 show that there were around 1.8 million men employed in construction, compared with only 340,000 women. While some improvements have been made in recent years, the figures make it clear that achieving gender parity is still a distant goal.
In industries like construction, where predominantly male workforces have long been the norm, the onus is on employers to take strategic steps to close the gender gap. By addressing the longstanding obstacles that have kept women on the sidelines, companies can not only enhance their own work culture but also contribute to meaningful, industry-wide change.
Various industry reports and research have offered signs of encouraging advancements in female recruitment in the construction, engineering and utilities sectors in recent years. This reflects the work that employers are doing to help create a welcoming and inclusive environment for female staff.
- A March 2022 report from EngineeringUK shows that the representation of women in the engineering workforce has risen significantly in the last decade or so, going from 10.5% of the workforce in 2010 to 16.5% in 2021.
- EngineeringUK’s 2022 report also showed that the number of women in engineering roles has surged from 562,000 in 2010 to 936,000 in 2021. Impressively, this growth persisted even during the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw a decline in the overall engineering workforce.
- Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that over the last 10 years, the number of women as a proportion of the overall construction workforce has increased by 36.9%.
- A September 2022 report from the Women’s Utilities Network (WUN) reveals that 85% of respondents work for companies with diversity and inclusion policies in place.
However, these positive trends cannot entirely make up for the significant issues that still persist within the sector. Women continue to be underrepresented in construction, especially in senior roles. The lack of female representation in senior roles is cited as a key reason for this underrepresentation.
The WUN’s report shed light on how these issues are manifesting within many engineering and utilities-related workplaces:
- Of the 320 women working in the utilities industry that the WUN surveyed, 78% said they work for a company with an all-male senior management team.
- 6 in 10 women said they felt unconscious bias had hindered their career progression to date, while around half said they felt held back by the company’s culture.
- 48% said they expect to work harder in their roles than their male counterparts.
While the moral and business imperatives for achieving gender parity are clear, the path to realising this goal is fraught with challenges. Many of these obstacles are not created deliberately, but are the by-products of longstanding cultural norms within the industry.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Elizabeth Donnelly, CEO of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), to gain insights into the structural barriers that impede women’s progress in construction careers. Ms Donnelly outlined several key issues:
- Women often face resistance to career advancement from sceptical managers and employers, even when their performance metrics suggest otherwise.
- Automated systems for evaluating CVs can inadvertently penalise women when gender indicators are present.
- Male-coded language and phrasing in job advertisements can deter women from applying, perpetuating the gender imbalance.
- The absence of transparent pay structures can discourage women from negotiating higher salaries, inadvertently widening the gender pay gap.
- Job adverts that list too many overly specific “essential” qualifications can discourage well-qualified women from applying, as they may feel they don’t meet all the criteria.
While the barriers to gender equality in the construction sector are deeply ingrained, they are not insurmountable. By committing to comprehensive, forward-thinking changes in recruitment and workplace practices, employers can create an environment where talented women can truly flourish.
Here are some practical measures that can help to significantly level the playing field:
- Offer opportunities to female job applicants who may not have experience in the sector, but can demonstrate the right transferable skills and work ethic to succeed.
- Review job listings to ensure they are not explicitly or implicitly male-coded.
- Provide flexible rotas and working hours that appeal to female staff seeking to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
- Offer childcare benefits to help staff accommodate their family commitments.
- Identify and address gender-based pay disparities.
- Implement a strong culture of training support and career progression options to give employees from all backgrounds a chance to grow their skills over time.
- Highlight female role models and mentors within the organisation, in order to support women in advancing their careers.
- Create an inclusive, friendly and cooperative working culture that values everyone’s voices and contributions equally.
Not all of these changes can be implemented overnight, and some may require long-term commitment to ongoing change and improvement. However, these steps should be seen as necessary if the goal of real gender equality is to be achieved.
While the ethical case for creating gender-inclusive workplaces is clear, the practical advantages of doing so are equally compelling. Achieving true inclusivity not only enriches the work environment but also brings a myriad of tangible benefits to both employees and the organisation:
- Bringing a wider range of perspectives and skills to the team, allowing the company as a whole to benefit from greater innovation and diversity of thought.
- Ensuring that every employee has the opportunity to fulfil their full potential and enjoy a long and rewarding career.
- Creating a positive and supportive working environment that improves morale, delivers better team cohesion and fosters true loyalty within the organisation.
- Giving the company access to a wider pool of potential talent, preventing the loss of potentially valuable workers to other, more inclusive employers or sectors.
- Showing that the company is committed to representing the communities it serves, and proving to conscientious clients that the business shares their dedication to ethical practices.
Speaking to Lanes Group, Elizabeth Donnelly of the WES summarised this by saying: “Be aware that employing women will change your company culture, often for the better, but you will reap rewards in terms of more profit and a better service. Change may be painful, but in the end, everyone will benefit. Women like to think they are part of something bigger and more important than themselves, and pitching your work as supporting the greater good will encourage more women to join.”
The construction industry stands at a pivotal moment, with an opportunity to shape the inclusivity and diversity of the workforce for years to come. By embracing proactive strategies to dismantle gender barriers, companies can not only enrich their own organisational culture but also become trailblazers for change in the wider industry.