Equal opportunities initiatives come and go, but construction's career ladder remains steeper for women than men – if they manage to cling on at all after they've had children

Headhunters are the great sleuths. With their bulging contact books, superhuman perseverance and massive pay-offs if they find the right candidate, no number is left unrung in their mission to please clients. But when structural engineer Hanif Kara of Adams Kara Taylor asked a headhunter to find the company a female partner, the agency could not come up with a single name.
Although Kara's request was something of a surprise, the outcome was not. Anyone who goes to construction conferences probably does not notice the lack of women in the industry – because they are so used to it. In the construction industry as a whole, women make up 10% of the workforce, in architecture the figure is slightly higher at 13%, engineering manages 15% and female surveyors constitute 8% of the profession. As you move into more senior strata, these figures tend towards zero.
The 1996 report Tomorrow's Team: Men and Women in Construction – a spin-off from the 1994 Latham report – stressed that construction had to broaden its appeal and encourage under-represented groups to remain in the industry. The DETR backed an initiative called "Change the Face of Construction" to encourage more women and ethnic minorities into the industry. Six years on, the founders of the initiative have had to put the operation on the back burner, after failing to secure funding from the DTI. And its cousin – Women In Architecture, which was founded last July – says it has struggled to win £2000 in funding from the RIBA. The people behind these projects say that too many women are leaving the industry.
"Although the number of female architectural students has been steadily increasing for some years, not enough are getting into the higher echelons of the profession. Too many women are choosing to leave after just a few years of practice," says Angela Brady, architect and chair of WIA. For Brady, the statistics show that your sex does affect your chances of success in the construction industry, and more so than in other industries. So is construction more sexist than other professions?
Helen Stone, a civil engineer with 30 years experience, co-founded Change the Face of Construction and is head of the Construction Industry Council's Equal Opportunity Taskforce. She thinks that taking time out to have children should not end a woman's chance of success in the industry. "Of course, it's true that men tend to have continuous careers, while some women take career breaks, but construction is lagging way behind other industries in retaining its expensively trained women," she says.
Stone blames construction's inflexible working practices, where long hours can make juggling work and family especially tough. "A couple of high-achieving engineers are managing to combine both. But I think that a lot of senior women choose not to have children."
It does seem that the high achievers in the industry are wary about taking too much time out of their career (see box, previous page). Virginia Newman, associate at Shepherd Robson and vice-president of WIA, says women can soon start to feel that they will be "left out of the loop" if they take a prolonged break.
"After a couple of years away from the office, it can be difficult to get back into the cut and thrust of work – for a start, technology is changing rapidly – so it can become a confidence thing." Michelle McDowell, director of civil and structural engineering at Building Design Partnership and vice-president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, says managers lack awareness of the difficulties faced by women returners. "Some employers don't accommodate career breaks, because historically there hasn't been the demand – so we're behind the times," she says.
According to the CIC's Stone, sexual discrimination can be subconscious. "Men are increasingly aware of the importance of addressing the issue of gender imbalance, but it can be easier just to keep the working environment bloke-only," she says.
Stone believes that for some companies, the effort needed to change their culture to one that is more supportive of women is perceived to be too great. She cites the example of a managing director of a well-known contractor, who recently told the Equal Opportunities Task Force that he doubted whether he wanted increased diversity in the workforce. "He didn't feel it was his responsibility, or within his power, to encourage women – or for that matter, ethnic minorities, into the company," says Stone. "It's difficult to achieve change when leaders opt out of influencing their workforce."
For Viktoria Kowal, associate at architect Fitzroy Robinson, the failure of women to progress can sometimes be linked to their self-perception. "I am speaking in very general terms, but whereas a man faced with a problem at work might look to blame somebody else, or the circumstances, a woman is more likely to blame herself."
She argues that it is up to individual companies to develop individuals' strengths, and to consider maternity as an asset without making women feel as if they are getting special treatment. "If you are working for a company that cares about you as a person, then pregnancy should be seen as a positive, life-changing experience rather than a problem."
Kier's financial director Deena Mattar – construction's most senior female after Zara Lamont – says women can turn being female to their advantage. "I've sometimes got the feeling that blokes open up more to me," she says. "I use persuasion rather than confrontation. This is a service industry and communication skills are essential, and I think women can be better at expressing themselves.
"I have mixed views about women's groups - the fact I'm female should be irrelevant. The issue of childcare and maternity rights doesn't apply to me yet, but I can't see it causing any problems."
The biggest challenge for the industry will be to keep women like Kowal and Mattar just as enthusiastic if they do choose to have a family.

Prior to having a child, I did not feel there was a gender issue in architecture

Virginia Newman, Sheppard Robson

I have mixed views about women’s groups because the fact that I’m female should be irrelevant

Deena Mattar, Kier

“Construction is lagging way behind other industries in retaining its expensively trained women”

Helen Stone, Change the Face of Construction