Will the short-term focus of the industry on solving its migrant skills crisis mean that a much bigger opportunity to address gender equality is ignored?

Simon rawlinson landscape

Compared with how often the industry publicly agonises about the migrant skills crisis or the ageing workforce crisis, construction’s long-standing difficulties in accessing the female workforce are barely on the agenda. Some individual businesses are doing great work in promoting women; but what should the industry do as a whole, and is there an opportunity, as construction undergoes significant change, to also change our thinking about what the workforce should be?

This issue was brought home to me when I recently attended a select committee hearing at the Scottish Parliament on behalf of the Construction Leadership Council. One issue where the panel of enquiry witnesses found common ground was in response to a question on gender. Not because we agreed, but because none of us on the all-male panel was properly prepared to address the question and none of us could come up with satisfactory suggestions for a solution. 

Having a gender imbalance with women only 14% of the sector workforce is bad for business as well as a waste of opportunity

Let me be clear: this is a problem that defies easy answers. Organisations including the Construction Industry Training Board have been working hard to close the gender gap, and the sector deal calls out the diversity issue. However, the data shows just how deep-rooted the issue is: the female share of the sector workforce has been stuck at around 14% for over 20 years. And the proportion working as site operatives is a vanishingly small 2%.  

Having a gender imbalance like this is bad for business as well as a wasted opportunity. Most obviously, by not being diverse, the industry is cut off from the recruitment of nearly 50% of the potential workforce. And there is plenty of empirical data to demonstrate that more diverse teams perform better and make businesses more profitable. Furthermore, the static gender balance data suggests construction firms are failing to retain and develop the skilled women they are fortunate to recruit in the first place.  

UK-wide, the participation of women in the workforce has increased rapidly since the early 1970s, when equal pay and sex discrimination legislation were passed, and the proportion of work-age women in employment had grown by 2013 to 67%. How did this change come about? The shift from manufacturing to services jobs explains some of the switch, as did the willingness of some industries to change the way they work to access new skills. However, skilled trades and machine operative roles that characterise construction are among the job families that have remained male-dominated.  This means that it’s not just a question of changing either attitudes or the way we work: both need to be addressed in tandem to make any significant difference in attracting more women. 

When asked about this issue, I highlighted to the select committee the sector deal proposition that by moving work away from site to factory and by changing the content of the work – for example to manufacture, assembly, logistics and quality control – then chances for women to participate at scale in the construction workforce would increase. But there was a lot more I should have said, if I had really had my eye on the problem.  

The most important point is the one hidden in plain sight. While a culture of sexism and harassment is allowed to persist in some parts of the industry, we will never fix the recruitment gap. Furthermore, until the industry can be more flexible in the way that it employs and more equal in how it both pays and treats people, there will be good reasons to choose careers in other sectors.

Individual businesses must also take steps to promote greater participation by women. The visibility of women in leadership roles has long been a challenge for construction and it is an area where all parts of the industry, including the Construction Leadership Council can do more.  We need to get our culture right, too, and that’s a training challenge for everyone in the sector if construction aspires to attract the workforce needed post-Brexit to deliver for UK plc.

But coming back to my point about shifting from sites to factories: although it was a narrow response to an important question, perhaps it isn’t so far off the mark. Not because factories are the solution to deliver a more diverse workforce, but because construction’s change agenda depends as much on creating a modern workforce as on as driving technical innovation. Fortunately, we have the support of an ambitious sector deal and transformation programme, which is aimed at delivering social and environmental outcomes as well as cheaper and faster construction. 

There are a few aspects of the transformation programme that suggest that it could help attract those much-needed women workers into the industry. Firstly, it encourages the development of new job types and ways of working. Secondly, it aims to bring new businesses into the sector, so there is the opportunity to be influenced by the working practices of other industries. And finally, as a sector with a key role in delivering homes, schools and railways, we offer jobs that stand out for genuinely delivering better outcomes to society, which should be attractive to many diverse potential workers.

As the industry comes to terms with the looming skills crisis, it would be easy to look for ways of making small changes, and adapting the current model. But it needs a bigger solutions than that: transforming the industry may allow us also to transform the workforce, and perhaps get the industry the skills it needs.

Simon Rawlinson is head of strategic research and insight at Arcadis and member of the Construction Leadership Council