Getting more women into construction is vital - but it won’t be easy
I have been thinking a lot recently about the challenge of increasing diversity within our industry. For me, attracting more women into our industry could be the key to meeting the skills gap that is predicted over the next few years.
Last month, one of our managing directors, Katy Dowding, won the Woman of Achievement Award at the annual Women in the City awards – the first person to do so from a facilities management background. She genuinely did not expect to win from a line-up of women drawn from sectors such as financial services, medicine and technology, but it was a great moment when she did.
Employers that welcome a wide range of people, provide real opportunities for development and acknowledge the many ways in which people manage their working lives are surely going to prevail
I was prompted to ask why shouldn’t this business leader expect to be a winner? Why shouldn’t someone with an engineering background, experienced in the construction industry, make her mark at such an event? It takes the same skill and determination to get to the top in facilities management, construction and engineering as it does in any profession. Just look at Mary Barra, General Motors’ new chief executive – an electrical engineer by training and the first woman to run a US car maker.
But the following week, an Institute of Physics report said that 49 per cent of state, co-educational schools are failing to promote certain A-level subjects equally to girls and to boys. If girls are guided, even inadvertently, towards studying English, biology and psychology, rather than physics, maths and economics, their options for a rewarding career in construction and engineering will be greatly limited, and both they and the industry will lose out.
Construction is not particularly well known for diversity, I admit. Looking at gender alone, various statistics indicate the low level of women in UK construction, ranging from less than 2 per cent of the on-site workforce to around 25 per cent across the whole industry; only 10 per cent of those in skilled trades are women, for example.
Other countries also struggle. A 2012 study by The National Association of Women in Construction showed that less than 12 per cent of construction workers are female in Australia; in the US it’s 9 per cent. The organisation’s recent survey of female construction workers in Sweden found that 64 per cent blame a significant skills deficit in construction on a perceived macho culture in the industry, with 18 per cent considering leaving the sector. To help address this, Skanska in Sweden has set a strategy to attract 35 per cent female undergraduates into the business.
The three challenges identified in the Australian study were attraction, industry culture and retention. They link directly to the concern at the heart of diversity – finding the best people to deliver construction projects. It’s fast becoming both a reputational issue and an operational issue.
Ours is no longer a nine-to-five world. Employers that welcome a wide range of people, provide real opportunities for development and acknowledge the many ways in which people manage their working lives are surely going to prevail.
With diversity comes diversity of thinking, education, background, skills and approaches. There are incredible growth opportunities just around the corner for our industry. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a change in how we resource that growth. Are we up for the challenge?
Mike Putnam is the president and chief executive officer of Skanska UK