You’d think the industry would have moved into the 21st century by now, but when it comes to recruiting women it seems more like a 1950s Harry Enfield spoof. So does the industry not want women or is it they who aren’t interested?

Construction: no place for women!
Construction: no place for women!

Did Roger Knowles know what he was getting himself into? In a letter published in Building on 11 March, the chairman of construction consultant Knowles wrote:

“A considerable amount of correspondence has appeared in Building as to why so few women find work on construction sites. A female colleague of mine probably put her finger on the truth when she said that neither she nor her friends would consider working on a construction site due to the effect it might have on their nails.” This immediately raised two questions. The most obvious, and presumably the one that Knowles wanted to highlight, was whether women actually want to work in the construction industry at all. Not, shot back one reader, if it meant working for a man like Knowles – the first parry in a debate that has occupied Building’s letters pages ever since. The second question that some people raised is essentially the same point turned inside out: if the chairman of a major construction firm can write such a letter, how can we say for sure that, behind the PR, the macho world of building actually wants more women in its midst?

Do women want to work in construction?

To deal with the first question first, and if we ignore the Knowles employee’s nailcare advice, there does seem to be an underlying issue to address. After all, despite years of positive recruitment campaigns, women still only represent 12% of construction professionals and 1% of workers in manual trades. Knowles, speaking later to Building, points out: “If you take 50 females of your acquaintance, or just walk down Oxford Street, and ask ‘Do you want a job in construction?’ you’ll get your answer. Most would say ‘No’.”

Here, even his harshest critics would have to admit, he has a point. A recent Equal Opportunities Commission report celebrated the fact that 80% of school-age girls said they would be interested in learning to do a non-traditional job; however, of these, only 12% were interested in construction. For many people, including CITB-ConstructionSkills, the explanation for this lies in construction’s public image. As Knowles says: “You have to persuade people in the media to portray the industry in a more positive light. The perception is of cowboy builders and of pile drivers making a terrible row. The construction industry shows itself in its underpants.”

In an effort to shed light on this (in an admittedly less than scientific manner), Building took up Knowles’ challenge and trod up and down Oxford Street to ask 50 women whether they would consider a career in construction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this straw poll seemed to back up Knowles’ point. Thirty-six of those questioned said ‘No’. Asked to choose three words from a list of 10 to best sum up their preconceptions of the industry, 32 went for “hard work”, 33 for “dangerous” and 30 for “macho” (see box, page 22).

Nicola Thompson, the CITB’s communications manager, says: “It’s interesting that when you ask people about their perception of the industry, it is rooted in the past. Girls immediately think of bricklayers and have bricklaying in mind when they answer the question.” In an effort to change this, the CITB launched the £1m Positive Image campaign in April, and its starting point, like Building’s, was Oxford Street – specifically the changing rooms of clothes shops like Top Shop and New Look, where they could advertise to their target audience. The campaign also advertised on lifestyle websites, on television and in cinemas. According to Thompson, the preliminary results are encouraging. She says:

It’s interesting that when you ask people about their perception of the industry, it is rooted in the past

Nicola Thompson, CITB-ConstructionSkills

“We invite people to communicate their interest in a number of ways. We had 3500 texts in the first four weeks – double last year – and a huge jump in visits to the beconstructive website in April, with 90,000 hits compared with 28,000 in March.”

Does the industry want to recruit women?

So, there may be more women willing to get their nails dirty than Roger Knowles’ colleague anticipated. If the CITB’s figures are correct, there is some truth in the notion that, if you challenge construction’s public image, young women will gradually become more interested. However, this is when the second question – “Does the construction industry, in all its various forms, actually want more women in it?” – becomes increasingly pertinent. Because if it turns out that it doesn’t, then it could be argued the positive recruitment campaigns present a less-than-complete image of the industry – not unlike the public image they are trying to dispel.

Thompson admits that as well changing the perceptions of schoolchildren and their parents, there is a “third piece of the jigsaw” – employers. And many employers, she says, still have a “fear of the unknown”. One case that has emerged in recent weeks is that of Sophie Browning, an 18-year-old apprentice carpenter who despite excellent recommendations is the only student on her course yet to find a work placement for her three-year GNVQ. One potential employer actually laughed at her. John Cowie, South-west region advisory manager for the CITB, which is acting as Browning’s employer, says: “Sophie has demonstrated a wonderful ability in carpentry, but unfortunately this is part of a trend. Colleges are happy to take women. The missing link is then finding an employer to take them. They see women as a distraction, which will necessitate changes in the way they work. It’s very frustrating.” Cowie adds that of the nine women who signed up to the CITB’s pEOple@work scheme, to promote equal opportunities for ethnic minorities and women, work placements were only found for two.

Likewise, 82% of respondents to a survey conducted at the Women in Plumbing Group annual conference in November 2004 cited lack of places on courses, on-the-job training and apprenticeships as the biggest barriers to entry into the sector, despite high levels of interest from women.

Of course, it would be wrong to ignore the fact that these examples come from the manual trades sectors, which are almost entirely male-dominated, and that there are higher rates of inclusion in sectors such as architecture and surveying. Figures from university entrance body UCAS indicate that 4794 female students embarked on engineering or construction-related degrees in 2004, 20% of all applicants. However, as a lot of people felt Knowles’ letter suggested, in many respects the white-collar end of the industry is still a man’s world, with the type of “old boys and schools boys” culture that provides myriad anecdotes from their female colleagues. One 24-year-old woman in a marketing position at a contractor recalls an occasion when a “very grey” property developer walked up to her at a party and, having barely introduced himself, said: “I’m going on a cruise – why don’t you join me? Just so that you know, terms and conditions would apply.”

Another example, which many of the leading figures in the industry would have witnessed, came at the Building Awards in April. When the name of Megan Walters, a PFI bid manager who was highly commended for her campaign for better maternity rights at contractor Bovis Lend Lease, was read out, it was met with juvenile sniggering. This not only revealed in stark light the chauvinist tendencies of some of the audience, but was a telling reminder of the industry’s poor record on maternity pay. Recent EOC research revealed that 30,000 women every year leave their jobs because of poor maternity rights, and both manufacturing and construction stand out for their lower than average provision of such benefits, even when compared with other male-dominated sectors. The most recent DTI statistics, published in October 2003, showed that 15% of construction employers gave female workers more than 18 weeks statutory leave, compared with a national average of 27%. Twenty-eight per cent of the sector operated “keep in touch” or retraining schemes, compared with an average of 59%.

What makes this so damning is that maternity benefits are directly linked to rates of retention. According to DTI figures, HSBC improved their retention rate from 30% to 85% and BP from 50% to 99% after the implementation of full pay for 26 weeks of leave. Not only that, but it’s financially prudent. Megan Walters fought, successfully, for the same measures to be adopted at Bovis Lend Lease based on purely economic arguments. She says: “I showed it was actually cheaper to pay women maternity leave than to have them leave the company. If they feel there’s no point going back to work, companies have to recruit and train new staff.”

Colleges are happy to take women. The missing link is then finding an employer to take them

John Cowie, CITB-ConstructionSkills

Wendy Coggan, director of QS Coggan Associates, left one of the biggest consultants in the country for exactly that reason. She says:

“The single biggest problem I have faced in my professional life was 10 years ago when I went on maternity leave. My employer said to me: ‘We’re not going to give you a pay rise because you’re going on maternity leave’. So I left. I did move on to another practice but I was £3-4000 behind other people with the same experience.” She adds: “That's why I can't understand why women work in construction - the money. I would be surprised if that’s not still the case.”

The available evidence seems to support Coggan’s contention. A New Earnings Survey into average earnings in construction occupations conducted in 2003 concluded that the average weekly pay for a woman in a construction job was £396 compared with £525 for a man. The occupations surveyed included managers, skilled construction trades, construction operatives and elementary construction occupations. A more detailed breakdown of the data is not available - because, naturally, of the low numbers of women in these occupations.

Is chauvinism putting women off?

There is a third question: whether, if there is a type of institutional chauvinism within the construction industry, it is this – and not preconceptions about bricklaying and the dangers of site work – that puts women off joining the industry. Certainly, of the women interviewed on Oxford Street, only one chose to see the industry as “female-friendly”. Ultimately, however, it is very difficult to say.

Small steps are being taken to change the industry’s attitude to women. From Bovis Lend Lease’s action on maternity benefits at one end of the scale to small contractors like Durkan Construction and Derwent Build that actively seek female apprentices at the other, there is undoubtedly progress. The National Association of Women in Construction is opening regional branches across the country and its inaugural London event was packed with women who had a lot of positive things to say about jobs for which they care passionately. It’s just that it is probably worth hesitating before stating with confidence that the industry as a whole is as passionate about them.

“If you walk down Oxford Street and ask 50 women ‘Do you want a job in construction?’, you’ll get your answer”
“If you walk down Oxford Street and ask 50 women ‘Do you want a job in construction?’, you’ll get your answer”

“If you walk down Oxford Street and ask 50 women ‘Do you want a job in construction?’, you’ll get your answer”

When Roger Knowles said: “If walk down Oxford Street and ask 50 women ‘Do you want a job in construction?’ you’ll get your answer. Most would say ‘No’,” Building decided to test his theory. Oxford Street being probably the busiest street in London, it was decided to keep the questioning short and to the point. There were three questions:

1. Would you consider working in construction?
2. Why / why not?
3. Please choose three words that you think best describe the construction industry:

  • Rewarding
  • Female-friendly
  • Dirty
  • Hard work
  • Well paid
  • Exciting
  • Creative
  • Intellectually stimulating
  • Macho
  • Dangerous

Our labours appeared to back up Knowles’ point. Thirty-six women questioned had said ‘No’, with reasons ranging from “I’m rubbish at DIY” to “It’s too physically challenging and I couldn’t cope with the bad weather. The fact that there are few women in the industry could also be putting me off”. It seemed that, of the negative responses, most equated the construction industry with site work and physical labour. The most popular descriptions chosen were “dangerous” (33) “hard work” (32) and “macho” (30), although “creative” also scored highly (20).

The positive responses seemed to reflect a rounded view of the industry. Linda Francis, 39, expressed interest, but “it depends which bit. I would go into property development for the money”. Michelle Murray’s positive response was rooted in experience: “I’m from the country, I grew up on a farm – there’s lots of construction jobs where I’m from” – but she was Australian.

The best news for the industry came from Claudia, 25, the one woman questioned who actually works in the industry – on a site in Forest Gate. She said she liked “everything about the industry” before placing big ticks by “female-friendly” and “creative”.