The number of women in construction is still woefuly low. We need to engage with schools so that children have a better idea of what construction can offer

Stephen Gee

Last month the Women’s Business Council - which advises business and government on how to ensure women get the same opportunities in their careers as men – has released its one year on findings. The report is fairly positive, highlighting the highest ever employment rates for women and a near zero gender pay gap for the under 40s working full time. Things are certainly moving in the right direction.

More females are graduating from university than ever before - 449,000, up 3,000 on the year before (Higher Education Statistics Agency data, as of 2012/13 academic year). But add to this the fact that more female graduates are taking the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - 4,000 up on the year before - and the results pose some interesting questions for our sector. Why do so few women undertake construction-related degrees? And for those that do, why do so few go on to join our industry?

The sector has suffered over the years from image-related issues, especially on construction sites, which have negatively impacted on diversity levels. But schemes like Considerate Constructors and changes made by the industry itself have gone a long way to address this. With the number of women entering the sector on a downward trend, clearly there’s still more work to be done, but where do we start?  

How many careers advisers highlight the opportunities of the construction professions to young women who are picking A levels and university degrees? I suspect that a 16-year-old girl that has just done their GCSEs would have to carry out independent research on the matter

In the past, when we’ve been into Kingston University to talk to students on the QS course, we found that only 10% of the people on the course were female. Likewise we found this low percentage again when we advertised our graduate assessment day.  

We received 60 CVs from people interested in coming to see us. But female undergraduates were woefully under-represented with only five of the CVs from female candidates. Again this was surprisingly low, and we looked to positively discriminate the CVs from females where we could, in order to shortlist as many of them as possible. We put all five female candidates through to the assessment day. Following the selection process, we went on to offer full-time positions to five graduates, one of which is female.  

Unless there are more women undertaking construction-related degrees, the numbers in our industry or at board level will never go up. But the issue needs to be addressed in the roots of the education system. Early engagement with schools is imperative if we want to attract more women into our sector.

This involves getting into schools and highlighting the opportunities and rewards. After all, there is no reason why you shouldn’t have as many women working in our sector as men, much like any other professional services sector.

Decisions about entering a profession such as quantity surveying really need to be made at the age of 16 when career choices are being formed and defined by the academic decisions which go on to shape our careers in the short and in some cases longer term.  

My own career path pays testament to this.  Having undertaken a short spell of work experience in Wimbledon as a QS, the subsequent conversation with my careers adviser was focused - without hesitation I wanted to be a QS. The careers adviser pointed out what A level subjects I needed and which university courses I should target. Unfortunately, I suspect there are very few females attending work experience at construction-related companies. There may be some, but I suspect they are few and far between.

We need to act now and break the mould, but that mould needs to be broken in schools and it may mean targeting teachers and careers advisers rather than pupils.

I wonder how many careers advisers are highlighting the opportunities of the construction professions to young women who are picking their A levels and university degrees? I suspect that for a 16-year-old girl to walk into a teacher’s room and say they want to be a QS, having just done their GCSEs, they would have had to carry out a lot of independent research on the matter, rather than having it promoted to them as a fantastic career option.

We as employers have a role to play by working with organisations such as the Construction Youth Trust on programmes such as their Budding Brunels. This scheme encourages companies to go into schools and broaden school children’s aspirations and understanding of the career opportunities within our industry. They engage with construction companies to get them to offer work experience and to show teenagers just what it is it we all do. They also offer advice on courses, qualifications and universities.

Diversity is a good thing and much needed within our industry. So it’s time to start highlighting and informing young women at the start of their higher education, or even before this, rather than worrying about it as an industry when they don’t turn up.

Stephen Gee is managing partner of John Rowan and Partners