Tomorrow the UK will wake up to the results of the EU referendum. But whatever the outcome, we cannot afford to opt out on diversity


Tomorrow the UK will be waking up to the outcome of what could well be the most historically significant vote of many peoples’ lifetimes. Whatever the result of the EU referendum – and Building, from a construction industry perspective, has been a firm supporter of remaining in the union – the vote will unquestionably affect the UK’s economic direction for many years to come. Equally, whatever the outcome, the days ahead will entail a shift in the UK’s immediate economic priorities – whether that be through removing the layers of uncertainty that have clouded investment decisions over recent months; or, in the event of a Brexit, by a more fundamental reappraisal of the country’s income and spending.

What is far less likely to happen, but would be refreshingly welcome, is a period of sober reflection on the way that this campaign was conducted by many of those involved – and the impact that a relentlessly adversarial, and at times, downright nasty, tone has had on the voters who ultimately have had to decide the issue at stake. Whatever else either campaign has achieved, the debate has shone an uncomfortable spotlight on an alienating, bullying tone of politics that appears to have slowly crept into mainstream UK democracy, and which has fuelled cynicism and distrust among voters at the very moment that they should be most engaged.

The damaging impact of a deeply adversarial, stereotypically macho culture of engagement is something, of course, that the construction industry has been battling to overcome for decades. And although it may have passed many by amid the noise around the vote, today, 23 June, was not only the date of the EU referendum. It also happens to be the date of the annual National Women in Engineering Day – one of several initiatives that have sprung up over recent years to address the continued shortage of women entering technical professions, construction included.

The damaging impact of a deeply adversarial, stereotypically macho culture of engagement is something, of course, that the construction industry has been battling to overcome for decades

The reason why such initiatives exist is laid bare when you realise that less than 16% of engineering and technology undergraduates in Britain are female; a pattern of male dominance which is replicated across training schemes in other areas of the industry. The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10%. By contrast, some of those less developed European economies that have been made an often unflattering focal point of the referendum campaigns – such as Latvia and Bulgaria – have managed to reach nearly 30%. The UK’s persistent, comparative failure is surely food for thought – particularly, of course, if a Brexit leaves the country less able to fill its skills shortages by looking to the continent.

The economic consequences of this week’s vote will intrinsically shape the long-term outlook for many of construction’s key sectors, in terms of the sources of funding and the pattern of demand. But whatever the outcome, the UK will still have a shortfall of housing, a shortage of school places, and a transport infrastructure that urgently needs improving if its cities are to appeal as destinations to big businesses – European or not. Construction needs many more skilled workers if it is to deliver these improvements to the built environment.

It may be unrealistic to expect much to change in the tone of Westminster politics once voters become bystanders again for another couple of years. But for those in construction, with a looming shortage of skilled workers, every small effort to appeal to a broader workforce can have an immediate impact. When it comes to diversity, all businesses should say in.  

Sarah Richardson, editor