Julie Mellor, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, has construction's lousy record of recruiting women in her sights. But she's not out to give the industry a bashing: she has more subtle ways of making it see sense
Sitting in reception at the Equal Opportunities Commission, the title of one of the pamphlets leaps out at me: What Would You Do if Your Boss Asked You for a Blow Job? Quite a difference from the glossy brochures most companies keep in their meet-and-greet area. A quick glance at another leaflet informs me that after 30 years of equal pay laws, women's wages remain 18% below men's. I'm clearly in for a hard-hitting interview.

I am waiting to meet EOC chair Julie Mellor, who is about to launch an investigation into the industry's poor record of recruiting women. While I wait – she is detained by our photo-shoot – I chat to a young woman who's there for a job interview. Within two minutes I understand why it is Mellor has the construction industry in her sights. The young woman tells me that her first job after university was as a tender writer at a medium-sized contractor – but she couldn't bear being the only woman in a sexist environment. Her first day started badly when they couldn't find the key to reopen the women's toilet. After a while, she got fed up with going on site and being asked whose secretary she was. "It was a pity, because I liked the work," she muses. She quit after 18 months.

When Julie Mellor returns from having her picture taken round the corner in St James's Park, her manner belies the stark literature in reception. Instead of the confrontational hard-hitter I was expecting, she comes across as accommodating pragmatist, more businesswoman than feminist campaigner: she held senior jobs at British Gas and TSB before taking the reins at the EOC in 1999. "My business background is what prompted me to seek this role," she says. "I could see there were tremendous business benefits to equality. It helps me enormously in terms of thinking how to work with employers."

Mellor fixes me with a calm, assured gaze as she explains that the construction industry is an acute case of a business needing equality: "The skills shortage isn't surprising if you're only recruiting from half the labour market."

She suspects that construction is bad at recruiting women for the same reason that it is bad at recruiting from ethnic minorities: "The common theme is that it's easier to recruit people like yourself than it is to appoint people who are different." So the industry is staffed by a self-perpetuating workforce of white men. To make matters worse, she says, women are more likely to suffer sexual harassment in a male-dominated environment.

Even the new generation of workers is almost entirely male: just 1% of trainee plumbers and electricians on the government-backed Modern Apprenticeships scheme are women – which is why the EOC is launching an investigation. Mellor's team will work with a wide range of stakeholders, including the CITB, Sector Skills Councils, the Modern Apprenticeships taskforce, employers, schools careers advisers, and young people themselves.

The problem is self-perpetuating because it’s easier to recuit people like yourself

The investigation will produce a final report with recommendations for action, Mellor explains, adding: "Hopefully a lot of the recommendations will have started being delivered by then. It's very much about getting results, not just producing a report."

So how does Mellor think construction can recruit more female apprentices? "There's a new emphasis in secondary education on work experience, and that's an opportunity for construction firms to get in there and provide work experience for girls as well as boys. If we don't change their practical experience early on, they'll never consider being a plumber or electrician when they see a job ad."

Also, construction needs to make the most of its key selling point: pay. "Construction pays a darned sight better than a lot of jobs traditionally done by girls," says Mellor. "On the Modern Apprenticeships, the rate for social care and hairdressing, which are 98% women, is half the rate for construction."

Mellor would also like to see the scheme's age limit of 25 dropped. "Women who had kids quite young are saying, 'I want a trade, decent pay and flexible hours. A Modern Apprenticeship will help them get there, and to shut off that opportunity at 25 seems daft."

The EOC is concerned with men's rights as well as women's. In January it released research showing that in families where both parents work full time, fathers do a third of the child-rearing. "But most of it happens at weekends," Mellor notes. "Modern dads are very unhappy, because they have lots of opportunities to advance their careers, but they don't have the time to see their children growing up." Since April, fathers of children under five have had the legal right to ask for flexible hours at work, and the EOC is encouraging them to do so through a publicity campaign that raises awareness of these paternal rights.

Personal effects

Who’s in your family?
My partner is a scriptwriter, and I have a 10-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter. What do you do to relax?
Spend time with my kids. They are at a golden age when they’re quite relaxing – past the toddler stage when they’re not rational, but not yet teenagers when they’re emotionally challenging. Do you work flexible hours?
I’m part-time non-executive chair of the EOC, so I work pretty much full-time during term-time, but have lots of time off when my kids are on holiday. What car do you drive?
I’m a Mondeo woman! But I hardly ever drive the car.