“She’s so good she should have been a bloke.” That was the comment from the chief executive of one of the industry’s largest companies after a meeting a super-smart analyst. It was a throwaway remark, but it’s redolent of the culture that survives in an industry that is still overwhelming male and white and comfortable with it.
It was quoted by Keith Clarke, the chief executive of Atkins and the passionate chairman of the Construction Industry Council, during his launch of the report on diversity within the construction professions (see page 14). It won’t surprise many people working in the industry, who are aware that beneath the talk of equality of opportunity and outcome, little tangible progress has been made.The study, which was undertaken by researchers at the University of the West of England, was intended to measure how our industry compares with others. Unsurprisingly, we don’t come out well: 13.5% of our workers are female, 2% come from ethnic minorities and 14% have some form of impairment.
Even the basic job of compiling statistics is not carried out well by some bodies. Compare this with law and medicine, which keep admirable records. That said, those professions are dominated by people from high socioeconomic backgrounds, as the Milburn report on access to the professions, published on the same day, made clear. (And on this front, one has to ask if the government’s higher education policy, which has opened up universities but made courses harder to afford has backfired.)
Yards of column inches have been devoted to debating what can be done to improve sociable mobility, and one clear conclusion is that there are no easy answers. Similarly, it’s clear to anyone that opening up built environment professions to a more diverse workforce is not something that can be solved overnight. Twenty years of good intentions has brought mainly symbolic progress: we have a women president of the Institution of Structural Engineers, and for the first time, a women president of their civil engineering equivalent. The RIBA is about to follow them.
But ensuring the workforce reflects society (and therefore its clients) is a complex long-term project that needs to be tackled at all levels. And that includes inspiring Asian teenagers to become project managers, giving women more support after maternity leave and finding ways to finance poor kids of any colour to become architects – a seven-year course with a £30k salary at the end (with London weighting) is a hard sell. And we can’t allow the recession to push it even further down the to-do list. As Clarke also said at the launch: “We are
world-class professions and we’re good enough to get better. But only if we acknowledge we have a problem.” By agreeing to start gathering better data, as the professional bodies have done, they have made a small step forward.