The skills shortage means it is vital to recruit more women into the industry, yet the female workforce is still only 13% – so what should we be doing to encourage more women to join?  

The point has been made frequently that an industry suffering a skills shortage such as ours is shooting itself in the foot if it doesn’t recruit and retain more women.

The total female construction workforce has been hovering around 13% for two decades, and the lack of progress is unacceptable. Furthermore, that number flatters us when you consider that only 2% of on-site workers are female.

Given this lack of progress, it warrants repeating that we simply have to do better at creating the conditions to attract and retain more women in construction careers.

I was pleased recently to be asked to be an ambassador for the Young Women’s Trust, which represents women aged 16-30 who are at risk of being trapped in poverty. The organisation campaigns against the exclusion of women from careers in fields where they have historically been under-represented, such as construction.

The Young Women’s Trust will soon be publishing ComRes research showing that in the area of apprenticeships – a key indicator of the future workforce – little progress is being made on the under-representation of women in engineering, IT and construction.

Particularly worrying is that research shows male apprentices are continuing to earn more than female apprentices

More broadly, despite government efforts to boost the profile of apprenticeships, women are missing out on the opportunities apprenticeships present for gaining skills and getting a foot on the employment ladder. Particularly worrying is that research shows male apprentices are continuing to earn more than female apprentices, across all sectors. 

I don’t want to sound all doom and gloom. Our sector has some excellent women leaders. I am privileged to have been chairman of two bodies run by female chief executives – Sarah Beale at the CITB and Suzannah Nichol at Build UK. These are organisations central to the industry, and I hope the examples they set for inspiring women have a ripple effect throughout the sector.

And I’m thrilled that two women from my company, the Wates Group, are finalists for Woman of the Year at the Building Awards for this magazine next week – Helen Bunch and Rachel Woolliscroft. We at Wates know we have a lot more work to do to achieve better gender balance, but the example set by these women, combined with broader efforts to ensure we can retain young women coming into construction through mentorship support, are positive signs.

There’s something deeper at play, and I would venture to say that we need to shift a fundamental attitude about inclusiveness. It’s not just about gender. Nor is it just about ethnicity, disability, or any other characteristic of identity; it’s also about values, experiences and different ways of viewing the world.

Research by management consultant McKinsey & Company showed that diversity is a key driver of innovation, and there’s a high correlation of diversity and success. McKinsey’s 2015 report Diversity Matters shows gender-diverse companies are 14% more likely to perform better than those that are not gender-diverse. And ethnically diverse companies are 33% more likely to perform better.

Young people said they were put off careers in construction because they thought all opportunities were on-site roles

If we want construction’s performance to improve, looking to make ourselves more inclusive is a good place to start. To inspire more people to pursue careers in construction, we’ve got to create workplaces that are all about enabling people to realise their potential, and in which everyone feels valued for what they do.

Technological tools such as BIM and modern methods of construction are creating a greater diversity of jobs, and we’ve got to do better at reflecting that in how we present ourselves. We need to consider, for example, whether the stock photos of men (or women) in hard hats is really the image of the industry we want to present.

Giving more young women first-hand exposure to construction will also promote a more accurate understanding of the sector. At a recent event for the 5% Club, an organisation that promotes training, young people said they were put off careers in construction because they thought all the opportunities were in on-site roles, which from their limited experience seemed unattractive. But once they found out what the jobs actually entailed, their minds changed.

And rather than each company developing and running their own individual outreach programmes, we would be wise to join together behind the Build UK/ CITB Construction Ambassadors scheme, which co-ordinates visits and ensures we are efficient in our efforts by selling the sector as a whole, not as individual companies. If we all do our own separate thing, we’ll continue to appear disjointed, with each small effort having a small benefit, but falling short of the big awakening that we need.

Through these collaborative efforts we can improve the inclusiveness of our workplaces, attract and retain a broader set of skills and insights, and ultimately boost the performance of our businesses.

How employers in the 5% Club are tackling the skills crisis head on