It’s a given that discrimination and sexual harassment are a no-go in today’s society. Not surprisingly, when you ask almost any construction firm they will tell you that such practices are archaic and certainly don’t have a place within their organisation

So why is it that when I speak confidentially to women within the industry, I am told that discrimination is not only common practice but often encouraged?

Take Sarah, a QS with a well-known contractor working on a £500m scheme. With more than eight years’ experience and awards to her name, it sounds like she should be rising through the ranks. Her employer certainly agrees – her face can be found on promotional literature where she is upheld as an example of diversity and success.

But Sarah is thinking about leaving, not only her company but the industry altogether. The reason is not just the ongoing harassment and discrimination she faces daily, but the inability of her line managers and HR department to deal with it.

Sarah’s story is not uncommon. She has faced crude and overfamiliar comments and physical contact from colleagues, exclusion from social outings, been ‘protected’ from areas of work deemed unsuitable for a woman, reprimanded for having a ‘soft skills’ approach, but called to task when adopting an assertive stance. All this has led to her deciding there is no room for her within the industry.

Asked why she has not progressed the matter through the company’s internal processes, a familiar tale emerges. Her requests for the behaviour to stop were ignored. She did not want to approach her line manager as he often encouraged and joined in the behaviour, while the HR department had previously shown favouritism to the men and she felt it would be unsympathetic.

With an ageing workforce there are a lot of men who have only met women in traditional roles

Even when company procedures are followed, the results might not be in the woman’s favour. For example, Jane, a site manager on a £10m project, reported her boss when he told colleagues that he would ‘crack her, construction is no place for a woman’. She was transferred to a site of reduced value while her boss remained in place. She, not the behaviour, was seen as the problem.

It is perfectly understandable that we find ourselves in this position. With an ageing workforce, there are a lot of men who have worked for decades in the industry while only meeting women in traditional roles. For many, when they meet a woman project manager, fear sets in, and when we are fearful, we defend anyway we can. Where managers should then be putting a stop to behaviours, recognising what is and isn’t appropriate in a professional environment, they often don’t see it as their problem.

As a result there has been no real progress in the numbers of women in the industry. One senior ConstructionSkills manager has recently stated that retention of women is a worrying factor, and that the latest figures suggest a disproportionate number are leaving the industry in the downturn. Far from the myth that they have all left to start families, research such as the CIOB’s 2006 report The Changing Role of Women in the Workforce and Bristol University’s 2003 Why Women Leave Architecture have shown it is the industry’s culture that is turning them away from construction.

All is not lost, however, and things can change. Companies must first acknowledge that they may well have a problem. Instead of waiting for individuals to come forward, they should take the initiative to drive forward an equality agenda by:

  • ensuring construction-specific gender and diversity awareness training is available to managers to help them spot issues and deal with them as they arise;
  • providing external coaching or mentoring to female employees so they have a trusted point of call;
  • carrying out external audits of staff to find out if they have come up against barriers;
  • conveying to employees that oppressive and discriminatory behaviour will not be accepted.

For those who don’t believe this is important, especially in a time of recession, imagine yourself in Sarah’s position, because for her and many like her it’s important enough to leave the industry.