In construction, we could do a much better job of positive promotion – a new industry body would publicise the good changes taking place and show the sector is open to everyone
Have you looked at your company photos recently? Last week, I went to a breakfast meeting where I was inspired by the wonderful Steve Edge, who runs his own branding agency. He spent 20 minutes making us all laugh at his unpublishable description of the nearly always awful and faintly incriminating “mug shots” that accompany CVs.
His point was that most of us in the construction industry could do a better job of representing ourselves positively, but it got me thinking that, above and beyond the aesthetics of company photos, the biggest problem is who is in them. As I once heard somebody say: “If you have an all-white, all-male board, don’t take a group photograph!”
The truth is, construction has the worst gender balance within any industry – less than 1% of the 800,000 construction and building trades workers are women, and even when you add architects, planners and surveyors, this only rises to 18%. So, as women we need to be more visible, to make ourselves more noticeable and to ensure our voices are heard at every level.
Is everyone working together for a set of industry-wide common goals? Or are we acting as silos, each working for the betterment of our own discipline?
The irony is that we know having a diverse workforce makes us better and more profitable. The arguments are well-rehearsed. Research undertaken in 2017 by Alice Moncaster and Martha Dillon of the Open University analysed gender diversity and company performance within the built environment. The trends found in international and cross-industry studies show there is a positive correlation between a greater number of women on boards and company financial performance. We also know that having better female representation on boards and having positive role models reduces attrition rates of women throughout the workforce.
So, leading by example is critical to help us as an industry to do better.
But it’s easier said than done. I know from personal experience that putting yourself forward, often out of your comfort zone and often in an all-male environment, can be intimidating, even if the men in the room are doing all they can to mitigate you feeling that way. And spare a thought (however fleetingly) for those “pale, stale white men” who may be pale and white but often feel “got at” and past their sell-by date, even in their 40s. With many boards realising they have a problem, for once being a woman or BAME applicant has some benefit.
If we want to make a positive change that alters peoples’ perception, we have to think big, work together and communicate effectively
I have also recently learned how it can be a struggle when the shoe is on the other foot. Last week, we named the successful applicants for the National Infrastructure Commission design group, which I chair. Of the 10 applicants, seven are women, but before I pat myself on my back, I should point out that only one is from a BAME background. We all have work to do.
All of these factors lead me to believe we need to radically rethink the way we promote ourselves as a sector and as a collective, cohesive and tolerant place to work. I understand that we are a large beast with estranged, component parts and a reputation for being reluctant to change. But for effective change to take place, perhaps we need a group, body or association that can promote the industry and all the positive changes that are being made, to the media, education and careers system, and to the public?
There are great professional bodies, associations, companies and individuals who are working diligently to improve the image of the construction industry – the Construction Leadership Council, the Construction Industry Council, the CIOB, the Institute of Structural Engineers and the RIBA to name but a few.
But is everyone working together for a set of industry-wide common goals? Have we defined a guiding set of principles that cover all the areas that we are talking about today, which all professions can support and stand behind? Or are we acting as silos, each working for the betterment of our own discipline, group or company, rather than the construction industry as a whole?
And if we did create a set of guiding principles, who would communicate, publicise and consistently promote those guidelines to the public? Who would shape the narrative, develop the key messages, modernise the visual language, create and then maintain a strong positive reputation?
If we want to make a positive change to the image of construction that alters peoples’ perception over the long term, then we have to think big, work together and communicate effectively. Perhaps it’s time for a new start. Perhaps it’s time for something that can begin to represent everyone not just in our business but in society. Then, however poor each individual mug shot we might take, collectively we can start to show we are receptive to change, and encourage other faces to join us in creating a better built environment for everyone.
Sadie Morgan is a co-founding director of dRMM Architects. She is also the HS2 independent design panel chair, sits on the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission and is a mayor’s design advocate for the Greater London Authority