In these days of chronic skills shortages, any initiative to double construction’s pool of potential recruits is welcome.
Obviously. But did anybody who read Patricia Hewitt’s list of ploys to get more women into the “macho” industry last week escape a weary sense of déjà vu? It’s been 10 years since a coda to the Latham report looked into equalising opportunities. That eventually led to the Change the Face of Construction body, which was set up in 1999 and which, after initial funding, has had to soldier on on a voluntary basis ever since.
In that period, we have seen some progress. There is a handful of more senior women in the industry, and a lot of women’s networking groups. Many employers have finally twigged that allowing more flexible working helps retain mothers. More contractors, particularly those working for local authorities, are trying hard to employ women at site level. And culturally, the case for balancing the workforce is more widely accepted than it was a decade ago.
But this is taking place against a dark background. Women still only make up 9% of the total workforce, and 1% at craft level. No woman runs a big construction firm. There wasn’t a single female finalist at the 2004 Chartered Institute of Building’s Construction Manager of the Year awards. And, although the pay gap is reportedly closing in M&E engineering, architecture and surveying – where the gap is down to a mere 27%, according to the RICS – appalling inequality is commonplace across professions and trades. And, crazy as it sounds, there are stories of women engineering students not being able to get experience on site during their vacations.
The lesson from Change the Face of Construction is that the continuity of initiatives – and therefore funding – is vital. The UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, a body set up by the DTI, has this as part of its remit. In the longer term, the problem is bound up with popular stereotypes and cultural values, and the best institutional tools for tackling these are schools. The Tomlinson report into education in England and Wales suggested that vocational training could begin at 14. If this were implemented, it would provide the ideal opportunity to stamp out the prejudices that girls have about construction, and that boys have about girls in construction. And the greater emphasis being placed on safety and site conditions will help to ensure that the people in high-visibility jackets are no longer perceived as the poor bloody infantry of the nation’s workforce.
Of course, construction is not alone in its failure to attract women, particularly at the senior level. The Higgs and Tyson reports last year highlighted the total dominance of white males in the country’s boardrooms, and as a response to this, the chairmen and chief executives of 20 of Britain’s largest businesses have agreed to mentor senior women from other companies. Perhaps the members of the Major Contractors Group could consider a similar scheme? Intriguingly, it was reported this week that the Church of England may have women bishops in the next few years. When a body that is even more traditional than construction has seen this light, there really is no excuse not to heed Ms Hewitt’s words.
Denise Chevin, editor