First person Women in construction aren’t just men with breasts. Making the industry more female-friendly means making a cultural change.

As a reporter on Building some years ago, I was asked to find out what the average site manager thought about some new health and safety legislation. I dutifully visited a site near our office in London Docklands, asked to see the site manager and was ushered into what passed as a reception area. After I had waited for a few minutes, he appeared and asked: “Come about the cleaning job, luv?”

These days, I am lucky enough to avoid being patronised in this way, and, as with most of the women established in construction, gender is not really an issue. Occasionally, I might throw in my threepennyworth if I’m asked for suggestions about recruiting more women. If I meet up with someone of the same sex, we might just joke that with so many men running the business, it’s not surprising projects are late, overbudget and riddled with claims.

Most of the time, however, the issue of women in construction is not on the agenda. There could be an element of being worried to raise it for fear of being stereotyped or not taken seriously. But generally as a subject it can – I’m sorry to be a traitor to the cause – get rather boring. It’s just not headline news. Occasionally, though, something happens that reminds me of the day I nearly became a cleaner and makes me wonder whether attitudes to women really have changed that much.

The venue this time wasn’t a chaotic Docklands building site, but a glorious restaurant on the Thames where I had been invited to lunch by a director of a very successful and innovative construction firm. I’ll spare his blushes just in case he or anyone else never invites me out again. I’m not quite sure how it came up, but the talk turned to women in construction. His line was very much the commendable “we certainly don't have a problem with women. Oh yes, we’d love to employ more – if only they were around.” But once pressed, the conversation quickly sped headlong down the great divide.

It’s all very well saying you want more women, but how many senior managers really believe it?

Was the industry really doing enough to accommodate the needs of women? was my question. It was women who had to adapt to the needs of industry, seemed to be his answer. For example, he didn’t really understand why it was so difficult for mothers to work from 7am to 7pm, and his view was that it was the childcare that had to accommodate this rather than changes to site practice. Oh yes, he observed, it must be difficult to face girly calendars and copies of the Sun every day – you have to be tough to cope with it. But, of course, he was in favour of more women – it made a change to have the cleavage at the front rather than the back, ha ha ha.

All this quickly blew over and if you’re reading this, John, I hope we're still friends. But what this conversation brought home to me is that, despite all the talk of getting more women in the industry, especially in the light of the current skills crisis, there is a fundamental idea missing from the thinking. It’s all very well saying you want more women, but how many senior managers really believe it? How many of them have sat down and really thought why? Why do we want more women, what will it bring to the business? And what effect will it have on the culture? Understandably, most managers in many sectors of the workforce would probably say that on an individual level they want the best person for the job. Do they ever think, if we got more women on the team, would the end result be any better? If they did, I’m sure there might be more practical attempts to make the industry more female-friendly. And that might encourage the women who join construction to stick around longer. Instead, I can’t help thinking that if there were dozens of bright young men out there queuing up to become engineers and site managers, most men of a certain generation would be only too happy to keep the status quo.

Many of the industry’s senior managers are still of a generation who have spent all their lives in construction, working with men, married to women who have stayed at home. They like the safe blokiness of it all. I know that on one level many are extremely kind and chivalrous – although their efforts may be a tad misguided, like the firm that sends its female employees flowers if they get wolf-whistled. But, on the whole, when male employers say they want more women, what they have in mind is female versions of themselves: men with breasts.