So it is commendable that the Construction Industry Training Board has set itself the target of a 10% year-on-year increase in the number of young women entering construction. And it is even more heartening that Bexley College is proving that it can be done.
At this small college in Belvedere, north Kent, a fifth of the students who recently completed their first year of building studies are women. On the college's higher national certificate course in building, six out of 30 are female – and all are set on a career in construction.
Fran Carton, building studies tutor at the college, says the number of girls studying on the two-year, part-time course has tripled since 2001 because of its determined effort to boost diversity. "We have close links with local building firms and a reputation for encouraging our students to do as well as they can," he says. "Most of our students come here on referral. It's wonderfully encouraging to work with so many girls, all of whom are strong students."
Carton says a more diverse class makes for a better educational experience for all the students. "Having girls in the class is great for us tutors. The girls tend to be less wary than the boys of making mistakes or sharing their views, which means we have more group discussion in class," he explains. "And I've noticed that the boys are less aggressive with each other when the girls are around."
Four of the six girls are already working in construction, albeit in back-office roles, and are attending the college to improve their career prospects. Three of these are being sponsored by their employers – however not all are so fortunate.
For the CITB, Bexley's success is proof that construction is starting to become more appealing to women. Di Barber, equal opportunities and diversity adviser at the CITB, says: "People are now realising that there is a need to promote the aspirational aspects of the industry – namely, how we want to be rather than what we are at the moment. But we still need a critical mass of women to really benefit from their input."
Building talked to five of the women about to progress on to the second and final year of their HNC course. We asked them for their views on the role of women in the industry, why they chose a career in construction and what the industry could do to achieve a better-balanced workforce.
Rosemarie McEvoy from south-east London wants to specialise in building surveying. She is 25 years old and has spent the past six years as a contracts officer with Botes Building.
My father was a painter and decorator, so I grew up with it around me. My company has taken me out on site visits, which fired up my interest.
What do your family and friends think?
My mum is very proud. I lost my father five years ago, but I know he’d be thrilled, too. Thinking about him makes me all the more determined to succeed. My brothers think it’s wonderful that their little sister is training to be a surveyor. My boyfriend’s an industrial plumber and his initial reaction was “Huh?”. But he’s supportive as well.
And after the HNC?
I’ll go on to do a degree in building surveying at the University of Greenwich.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
I’d like to be a surveyor manager in a company that carries out on-site inspections. Botes is so supportive that I’d be happy to stay there.
What do you think the industry could do to attract more women?
Companies should take their female admin staff on site visits and encourage them to train.
Danielle Luck is 21 years old and lives with her family in Dartford. Like Rosemarie, she has spent the past five years as a contracts administrator with London-based Botes Building
I like learning about practical things – hands-on stuff. I joined Botes straight from school to work in general admin. You know, things like filing, answering the phone – all the things you do when you’ve just left school. After I’d been with the company a year, Peter Whitehead, the area director of the company, suggested that I do some training.
What do those close to you think of your career plans?
Mum and Dad have been lovely about it. My Dad buys me flowers every time I pass an exam or achieve something. My boyfriend’s great about it as well. He’s always amazed by how much I know when I make some comment about a DIY programme on TV. Some people are a bit surprised when I tell them what I do, but on the whole people are supportive. And as for the other students – well, women have got all the brains – they definitely need us here.
And after you’ve completed the HNC?
I’ll keep going – why stop? I’d like to go to Greenwich University to study building surveying. It would give me all sorts of opportunities. I’ll probably stay with Botes, but I want to achieve it for myself.
Are you worried about how some men could react to you on site?
No. You’re just as likely to get whistled at on the street as you are on a building site. You’ve got to have a positive attitude and give as good as you get – then they’ll leave it alone. When I tell the lads at work they’ve done something wrong, they can barely get the words out to answer me. It’s as though you’ve got a certain power over them.
Stephanie Haycraft, a 34-year-old mother of four from south London, has completed her NVQ Level 3 in painting and decorating and is now specialising in building surveying.
I’ve always had to do my own decorating and enjoy doing it. A few years ago I got fed up of being at home with the kids, so when I heard about the decorating course run by Bexley aimed at women with kids, I went for it. It was great because it was held during school hours.
How did the blokes react?
Some of the blokes we trained alongside took offence that we were there and called me a lesbian, while others were more supportive. Most of the men ended up asking the women for help, especially on the decorative work, because women were more interested in the final look, whereas men just slapped on the paint. But the men on the course have reacted really well.
So men aren’t a problem. What is?
Money. I got funding for my first year from the European Social Fund, but things could be very different for year two. My partner recently moved in with me and he’s on Job Seekers’ Allowance, which means he’s eligible to work, but I’m not eligible for ESF funding any more. It’s mad.
What’s your dream job?
I’d like to be a health and safety officer but you need a minimum of four years’ experience. I’m doing two courses on health and safety in addition to the HNC course and I’ll try looking for a job again once I’ve finished the HNC.
What do your children think?
My son, the eldest, is 17 and is going to become a bricklayer. He thinks it’s great. My eldest daughter is keen to follow in my footsteps and I’m pushing my two youngest to do as well as they can at school.
What could the industry do to support women in your position?
If you’re out of work, why not get full funding to train? It’s hard for those on Job Seekers’ Allowance to get a decent job because of the lack of training available to them. Any help with childcare is desperately needed.
Carol Noding is Thames Water’s only female network services technician. The 36-year-old from Crayford got the job after doing a City & Guilds in plumbing, but is now hoping to specialise in building surveying.
I went through a period of being unemployed and happened to see an advert for a plumbing course. I studied plumbing for three years before getting my job with Thames Water. But it’s very manual – heavy work that involves doing things like changing massive valves – and a couple of years ago I decided that I didn’t want to be doing this kind of work for the next 10 years, so I came to Bexley. I wanted to do something that would allow me to progress in the long term, and earn better money.
And after the HNC?
I’d love to go to Greenwich University to study building surveying, but I’m taking one year at a time. I’ve got a mortgage to pay, although I don’t have children so I don’t have childcare to worry about. I don’t know what I’d do if I had to give up work … maybe I would go; I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. Ultimately, I’d like a job with Thames as a building surveyor or to be self-employed.
What do you think the industry could do to improve women’s chances of success?
Companies need to be more supportive financially. I did ask Thames for sponsorship but they decided that the course wouldn’t benefit me in the job I’m doing so they decided not to fund me or allow me time off work to go to college. I’m funding myself. The course costs £700 a year and I’ve been using my annual leave to take a Thursday off work each week to come here. Now that I’ve used up my leave, I’m working on Saturdays so that I can still come to college. If I had kids, doing this course would have been impossible. So as things stand at the moment I don’t think there is equality of opportunity, because if you need childcare, things are very difficult. But my friends and family have been great.
Melanie Bullard, aged 20 from Belvedere, Kent, joined social housing contractor United House after finishing her A levels. She is specialising in quantity surveying.
When I left school I applied for an accounting job with United. I didn’t know anything about construction. After they accepted me I went into their buying department, and from there, developed an interest in estimating. I really enjoyed my maths A level and like working with numbers so it seemed like a good idea to do some training, and handy for whatever I decide to do in the future.
Was it your idea to come to Bexley?
My company arranged for me to come here and study for the bridge course into the HNC. I was really keen and I’ve enjoyed the whole course.
And what about after you’ve finished the HNC?
I hope to qualify as an estimator. As for university – I’ll see how things go.
So how do people react when you tell them your career plans?
My friends are OK about it. Nobody’s said it’s odd, so far. I’ve not been out on site many times, but when I have the blokes have been fine.