Continuing his series on career issues, Robert Smith of recruitment consultant Hays Montrose discusses sexism in the construction industry.
We all know construction is a male-dominated industry, but what are the statistics?

The construction workforce is 87% male.

How does that affect women in the industry?

Hays Montrose consultants have received numerous reports of sexual discrimination. For instance, typical responses to women looking for jobs in construction have included: "The company is not ready for a female site manager yet", "I wouldn't subject you to the banter and swearing on site" and "I really admire what you are doing but I wouldn't let my daughter do it". Some women have even been asked: "Do you know what you are letting yourself in for?"

So, you think discrimination is a problem in construction?

Yes, there is a problem, and job titles such as chainboy and foreman only exacerbate it.

What does the law have to say about sex discrimination?

The Sex Discrimination Act says that you are entitled to be treated fairly at work regardless of your sex or marital status and that you cannot be excluded from a position or promotion because of your gender. Another act, the Equal Pay Act, says you are entitled to the same remuneration package as anyone else employed in a role involving equal work, equal status and equal rating as your own.

What is being done to combat sexism?

The government, the Construction Industry Council and the Institute of Civil Engineers have all introduced initiatives to tackle the problem. Before Christmas, the Department of Trade and Industry launched an advertising campaign called Concrete and Steel – I'm Mad for It to make engineering more attractive to female GCSE students. The CIC set up an equal opportunities taskforce last summer and the ICE is currently setting up a similar body.

Will these moves help?

Initiatives and good practice can only improve the situation, but the problem will not be solved until attitudes change. The notion that construction is a male preserve will only disappear when the ratio of women to men becomes more balanced and women have a louder voice in the industry. Encouraging more women on to construction and engineering courses will help. At the moment, less than one in 10 students in these disciplines is female. About one-third of female school leavers go to university every year, so clearly there is a lot of potential here.

Is it all doom and gloom for women in construction?

No, definitely not. Women who choose construction as a career tend to be exceptionally determined and successful.

Jane Towse, of Raynesway Construction, was Hays Montrose's 1997 site engineer of the year. She believes that sexism is more of a problem higher up the chain of command.

"I have experienced only a few problems, and those that have occurred have been at peer level. On site, once the novelty of a women engineer has worn off, an engineer is as much of a pain if they are male or female.

If you bring results, you will get respect."

How to handle sex discrimination
  • Deal with problems internally first – use established channels for complaints – as some issues can be resolved by talking things through.
  • If you feel your complaint hasn’t been dealt with satisfactorily, apply to an industrial tribunal. The DTI offers three advice leaflets: Introduction to Industrial Tribunals, How to Apply to an Industrial Tribunal and Hearings at Industrial Tribunals. They are available from the department’s publications order line, 0870-150 2500.
  • You must apply to the tribunal within three months of the alleged incident. If your company is likely to take more than three months to deal with your complaint, apply to the tribunal as well – applications can always be withdrawn.