A fixed workplace, flexible shift patterns and job security would all create a better gender balance in the industry, Rosa Turner Wood writes

Women are so poorly represented in the construction sector that their number in occupations such as bricklaying, scaffolding and roofing is too low to measure accurately. This was the stark finding of an ONS review of the UK workforce in 2018.

Photo_Rosa Turner Wood

Two years before that, Modernise or Die, Mark Farmer’s independent review of the nation’s construction labour model, revealed the steadily increasing demand for workers in skilled trades. Farmer said that 700,000 people would need to be recruited to replace those retiring.

This was in addition to “the extra workforce needed of 120,000 to deliver capacity growth”. And before the loss of migrant labour in the run-up to Brexit that has exacerbated the situation. Recruitment from Europe is only likely to become more difficult. 

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There are many reasons for the scarcity of women in the building trades, ranging from gender bias in the recruitment process through to a pervasive culture of entrenched misogyny onsite. But what if different building technologies could help to combat inequality and ease the workforce shortage?

Could offsite manufacturing technology solve our construction needs at the same time as increasing the number of women in the workforce?

If the projects we devote long hours to designing are not to grind to a halt, it is essential we increase the workforce – and this can most easily be achieved by expanding the representation of women.

Onsite construction practices have been found to deter women from the sector

Onsite construction practices have been found to deter women from the sector. In 2014 public policy think-tank the Smith Institute published Building the Future: Women in Construction. It was edited by Meg Munn, the Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley from 2001 to 2015. 

She reported that “inflexible working structures”, concerns about health and safety issues and the absence of safety equipment to fit women’s bodies – coupled with the need to be available to work long distances from home – were all factors that led to the exclusion of women from the sector. 

Offsite construction takes place within a contained environment, however, with employees in permanent factory locations and often hired as a local workforce. Dr Robert Hairstains, head of the Centre for Offsite Construction and Innovative Structures at Edinburgh Napier University, has explained the importance of these fixed working conditions in providing “job security and flexible shift patterns” which can help to improve the gender imbalance in the workforce. 

The Swedish offsite manufacturer Lindbäck Bygg, which specialises in timber-framed residential construction, is striving to create change in the sector. In recent years the business has sought to employ equal numbers of men and women as new recruits – and introduced equal salaries for its factory employees.  

A 2017 paper by the chief executive Stefan Lindbäck emphasised the company’s efforts to create a supportive workplace as a means to foster gender inclusivity. Lindbäck acknowledged that the perceived intense physical labour of construction could deter both women and men from this line of work.

Offsite manufacturing can offer stability and safety for the whole workforce

Discussing the production system at one of the company’s new factories, he said the facility was designed to create the possibility to “work with a little less muscular strength”. This would positively affect everyone by minimising “wear and tear on … bodies”. 

Further advances by the company include ensuring that safety clothing is suitable and fits the women in the workforce. Lindbäck approached Swedish workwear company Björnkläder, commissioning it to produce more than 300 pairs of carpenter trousers better fitted to a woman’s body. Björnkläder is now offering this product to the general market.  

Offsite manufacturing can offer stability and safety for the whole workforce. As Simon Rawlinson of the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) said last year at a Scottish Parliamentary committee meeting, offsite manufacturing offers a “future for everybody”.

Alongside other efforts to reform the sector’s overriding inequality of opportunity, offsite manufacturing can be a significant tool in the move to greater gender equality.  

Rosa Turner Wood has a Masters in Architecture from the University of Sheffield and is co-founder of MatriArch, a feminist collective and campaign group