You may think your company is actively promoting diversity, but the statistics tell a different story. Elaine Knutt spoke to this colourful group to find out what’s going wrong

What would a more diverse construction industry mean to Lisa Philips, a 29-year-old QS working for a major contractor? Perhaps she wouldn’t have to battle to get the information she needs from the site, then be told that she should have been more ‘assertive’ in the first place. Or she wouldn’t have to watch the senior director on a new project offer her little more welcome than a handshake, then go out of his way to make the new male graduate trainee feel at home.

Perhaps Caroline Carter, a site manager made redundant a year ago, would find that the agencies finding work for her former colleagues would return her calls. Ex-site manager Chrissi McCarthy might not have left the industry in frustration at not being given opportunities to progress. Or Ayo Allu, a black south Londoner, wouldn’t feel he has to prove his ‘edge’ before he can relax into a normal relationship with the team.

In 2009, the construction industry routinely trains, employs and promotes the women and non-white staff who might have found their career paths blocked a decade ago. But female and ethnic minority staff still have far lower representation in construction than they do in the UK workforce at large: an estimated 3.3% of the industry is non-white compared with 7.9% of the working population overall, while women make up just 13.5% of the construction workforce compared with 46% of the UK total.

While this remains the case, Philips, Carter, Allu and McCarthy will not only be part of a statistical minority, but often be made to feel like one. Along with the other participants in CM’s discussion panel – see overleaf – they discuss how their higher visibility in companies also makes their routine mistakes more visible, how pro-diversity appointments aren’t followed up with the mentoring support white men take for granted, and the feeling that construction is a club in which they haven’t been offered full membership.

McCarthy, who now runs a consultancy that helps construction companies to recruit and retain female staff, feels that progressive corporate policies can sometimes have a perverse effect on individuals. ‘It used to be that discrimination was out in the open, so at least you could discuss it. But now people know it’s not acceptable, so it’s under the surface,’ warns McCarthy. ‘That makes it more difficult, because you don’t know what you’re fighting against, or even if you’re fighting against it in the first pace. So individuals think, am I the problem? And then they leave.’

And therein lies the challenge. The industry might have opened its doors to minority staff, and employers might have adopted equality and diversity policies. But if the underlying culture is still based on traditional white male behaviour and management style, then the industry can still be an uncomfortable place for anyone who doesn’t fit that mould. Whether those individuals leave to work elsewhere, or stay but fail to become ambassadors for construction, the diversity statistics will remain stubbornly low.

This summer, two reports highlighted the extent of the industry’s recruitment and retention problems, as well as the risks for the future if the situation doesn’t change. The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) inquiry into race discrimination in construction looked at the continuing barriers that restrict opportunities for black and Asian staff, while the Construction Industry Council analysed membership data from all the industry’s professional institutions, including the CIOB.

As the EHRC points out, demographic changes over the coming decades will mean a decline in the white male population that is the industry’s traditional recruiting ground. Next year, only 20% of the UK workforce will consist of white, non-disabled men under 45. If the sector can’t make itself more attractive to the rising generations of women and non-white staff now, the industry’s current skills shortage could become chronic.

The CIC uses other industries as a mirror to reflect construction’s poor performance. According to its report, ‘construction has a long way to go to achieve diversity, and some professional institutions are not committed. There is a need to “catch up” with the legal and medical professions that have achieved increased diversity… and have a strong system of monitoring and implementation of diversity strategies.’

The problem begins with recruitment, and the effects of informal, ‘word-of-mouth’ referrals. ‘People tend to recruit based on contacts and who they know,’ says Canute Simpson, a black ex-site manager. ‘I’ve benefited from that in getting jobs, and most people have, but everyone has to be mindful of what it means in reality. You have to change your recruitment polices to include people who are not in the network, otherwise the make-up of the workforce will be self-perpetuating.’

Kevin Bowsher, equality and diversity manager at Olympic delivery partner CLM, agrees: ‘The traditional thing in construction is “my nephew, my son”. There’s a need to overcome that or we won’t get a bigger skills base. A diverse workforce opens your business to new customers, new markets, and new ideas, and you’ll have less staff turnover. But unfortunately, there’s still a large group of people who don’t think it’s an issue.’

The EHRC report looks at the problems that arise from the fragmented nature of the industry: the project-based nature of the industry both encourages word-of-mouth recruitment and means there is less time to break down barriers; good practice built up on one site won’t necessarily transfer to the next; there’s no collective voice calling for change or making sure it’s implemented; and a large proportion of the industry is made up of small companies that are hard to reach.

Simpson points to another damaging effect of the industry’s structure – the fact that many black and Asian staff who are working on site are effectively invisible. ‘There is a population in the low-skilled non-craft roles, such as site security and delivery drivers,’ he points out.

‘If you include those people, the overall employment statistics might look better. But it also means that the industry just isn’t training and promoting these people – why aren’t they being given the opportunities to do more?’

And for companies that continue to recruit a white male workforce through the word-of-mouth ‘network’, there’s a warning from the EHRC. ‘Potentially, companies that do this are breaking the law,’ says Rhodri McDonald, a senior lawyer who worked on the inquiry. ‘Indirect discrimination occurs when an organisation has a practice or policy that means some people are less likely to get a job. When well over 90% of the industry is white, word of mouth will adversely affect more black and minority ethnic people than white.’ The EHRC now plans to monitor construction firms for compliance with the law.

So what else can construction companies do to create an inclusive culture that would allow everyone to plan a future in the industry?

The CM panel discussion threw up several suggestions, including modifying the industry’s ‘martyr’ culture of long hours and long distances, closing the culture gap between site office and head office, the sensitive use of quotas, and diversity training so that staff can recognise the day-to-day issues that can lead to individuals feeling marginalised.

‘For me, it’s about training your workforce to understand what equality and diversity means, the issues and barriers people have, and to think about how you communicate with your staff,’ says McCarthy.

Diversity awareness training is already taking place at the Olympic Park, where Kevin Bowsher is trying to effect a culture change among Tier I contractors. He runs monthly diversity workshops for managers, with speakers from organisations such as Stonewall and the The Royal National Institute for Deaf People. He links positive policies on diversity to better outcomes in health and safety and project efficiency. ‘People who are respected will work more safely – there’s less horseplay and bullying – and will have higher levels of morale and performance,’ says Bowsher.

ConstructionSkills, which currently does not offer companies levy funding for diversity training, is also addressing the problem. ‘We’re reconsidering our offer to the sector, for instance offering a suite of training programmes, to help them improve diversity and procurement issues,’ says Kate Lloyd, in charge of equality and diversity in the recruitment and careers team. ‘We’re also working with the UK Contractors Group – it helps to get the big organisations to cascade a culture change down through the supply chains.’

However, the ‘who you know’ network – with its tendency to exclude difference and diversity – also exists at supply chain level. That’s the experience of Faruq Kidiwala of Huddersfield-based Trinity Property Maintenance, which has a network of self-employed black and Asian sub-contractors. ‘People have preconceived ideas, they prefer people they know, there are too many partnering arrangements – there’s many hurdles before we can ever be on an approved list.’

Trinity’s target client group is housing associations and it recently won a place on a five-year framework deal with Connect Housing. But in other recent tenders, Kidiwala has found that a local company representing the local workforce can still lose out to a national contractor. ‘The tender documents will stipulate targets on employing local labour, or black and minority ethnic labour. But a national firm can come in and say all the right things, but then it’s never monitored,’ he says.

Supply chain diversity policies are only as effective as the monitoring that follows. Nevertheless, the buying power of the public sector is accepted to be a long-term driver of change. Public bodies already have a statutory duty to ensure their contractors comply with anti-discrimination legislation. The forthcoming Equality Act brings existing diversity legislation together, as well as introducing a duty to ‘enhance equality of opportunity’ in public bodies themselves and along the supply chain.

Canute Simpson is optimistic that the industry can change its collective mindset further. ‘People’s behaviour patterns can change – we’ve seen it with ethical spending and Fairtrade. This is a similar issue. I hope people will download the [EHRC] report and read it, so that they’re conscious, as a business leader or as a professional, of what’s happening. Because if you’re aware of the problem, you’ll be more sensitive to the problem.’

That’s what many women and black and minority ethnic staff will hope for. Take QS Lisa Philips, experiencing social and professional slights that might not be openly discriminatory, but sadly have a similar effect on the individual. In an email to CM, she wrote: ‘It wouldn’t surprise me that some companies employ “minorities” and implement the policies and procedures to meet regulations but then don’t realistically act on them, or even attempt to consider what really occurs on projects. I’m not sure how some people expect to get a project completed with a team ethos that is always there in writing, but never actually exists.’ cm

A diverse discussion

Our panel talk over four hot issues

1. Working in the all-white club

Samantha Jones: The industry is dominated by white men and they can come across as quite intimidating. Anyone from outside, from another race, would probably think twice about a career in construction. I don’t find people very honest about diversity, they try to push it under the carpet.

But it’s evident that construction isn’t diverse.

Chrissi McCarthy: I worked on a project in Burnley, about getting black and minority ethnic people into construction. It wasn’t so much that the individuals weren’t interested, it was the fact that 90% of companies in the industry are made up of less than 10 people – and we’re always recruiting from family and friends.

SJ: In the school I went to in Essex, I was one of only two black girls in the year, so I’m used to that environment. And when I was in HR, I was the only black out of 103! But I know some of my peers would think no, construction’s not for me. On site, when they have health and safety inductions, does it also cover diversity?

CMcC: It depends. Some firms have diversity training on site, but most don’t, and some are disgraceful. I’ve had rows on site with BNP members who were sticking up posters, while site managers allowed it to happen.

SJ: That’s outrageous. Companies have a duty of care to their staff.

CMcC: Most of the black people I had on my sites were security guards. It’s not right for anyone to go into a canteen and see that, when they didn’t have any power to take it down.

Ayo Allu: In the UK, people give you a chance, it’s much more liberal in many ways [compared to working in France]. But people will still put you in a category. It’s not so much to do with people’s work lives, as growing up around a certain demographic. People stick to what they know, it’s how they’re brought up.

Erin Karsten: And labels are a problem. Are you comfortable with being called black? Because white people are fearful of using the wrong terminology, of offending somebody when that’s not the intention. And just having that fear makes people act differently.

AA: That’s the kind of thing you’d include in diversity training.

2. Women on site

CMcC: Some site managers I worked with were very abrupt and would tell sub-contractors: ‘Just do it now – or else’. I found it was better to be straightforward, to build the relationship. Then I was told how lucky I was everything was running well: people didn’t see me shouting, so they imagined it was happening all by itself.

EK: Yes, I’ve heard that one as well! People would tell me ‘you’ve got to be tough with sub-contractors’. Early in my career, because I was surrounded by guys of the old school, shouting, yelling and cursing type, I would default to that as well. Then, as I got further on and knew the guys better, I could play the softer card.

Caroline Carter: Yes, women work in a different way. Whenever I got a [male] assistant, I’d have to explain to him, you can’t do what I do, because I say to the trade contractors: ‘If you can do that for me, you’re an absolute star.’

EK: Yes, flattery always works! I’d say: ‘You know, I have the utmost confidence that you’re going to be able to finish this on time!’

CMcC: I’ve seen men flatter other men, and take that role, and it’s worked. I don’t think it’s a gender thing, I think it’s being manipulative, but in a nice way.

SJ: Initially, as a project leader, I felt intimidated going into a boardroom. They’re not expecting you, you can see that from their reaction. For me, it’s about gaining their respect, and I find I have to work harder to achieve that. So that’s why I’m doing an HNC in construction at university.

CC: It’s about confidence. When we walk into a room full of men, that front has to go up. But they’re already in their group, so they draw confidence from that.

3. How will change happen?

CMcC: I don’t think change will happen easily, because women don’t feel they can talk about these issues. I’m not a fan of prosecutions, but maybe that’s the way to move the issue forward. And ConstructionSkills is discussing a kitemarking system, so you can see which firms are good at diversity, and not just which firms are good at paying lip service to it.

EK: I think one of the routes is through clients and corporates, then it filters down. At the Bank of America 32% of its commercial construction contracts have to go to minority or women-owned companies. It’s lip service for some – it might be the construction guy’s daughter who’s the CEO! But it’s going in the right direction.

CC: I think we need to make the contracting business and sites themselves more professional.

EK: Chrissi handed us her business card, and I have mine, but I’ve observed that a lot of people here don’t have business cards. But it’s part of treating everyone you meet professionally.

AA: There’s a feeling that head office is where you act professionally, and the site is where you maybe work harder, but also muck about more. On site, people can tell sexist or racist jokes they wouldn’t dream of in head office.

EK: At a job interview in New York, one guy asked: ‘Why should I hire you?’ I replied: ‘One of the reasons is that I’m a woman. I’ve noticed more and more we’re dealing with woman clients, woman architects and woman engineers, and I think it would be a benefit to you to have another woman on your team and represent that diversity and open-mindedness.’ He said: ‘Good point’. And that’s how I got my first project management job!

CMcC: It’s important to mirror your client base, especially since so much work is being fought over in the public sector, and there’s a lot of women in charge of schools and health projects. So if you’re showing your organisation can mirror that, they’re going to feel that you can deliver.

4. Quotas

AA: Willmott Dixon has a strong UK base, and its employee profile is fairly white and middle class. But they have good diversity policies. I’ve realised that though I may be doing quite well there, I’m also filling a quota. I see it because there’s one black man in my discipline, another in the next department and the next!

CC: But you can work on that, can’t you? It starts the ball rolling.

AA: Exactly. A previous company got me to do a video clip to show clients what we’d been doing.

I felt I was being pimped, ever so slightly! Then I thought, if that’s what it takes for them to understand I’m making a valid contribution to their company, I’ll do it. If it takes me to fill a quota for them to realise that I’ve got a different background and different skills, but I’m just as good, then that’s okay.

CMcC: I think, for the greater good, quotas are a good thing.

But sometimes they’re oppressive on the individual. I’ve worked in one place where it was blatantly obvious I was filling a quota. And in that role I wasn’t allowed to show my worth, I was put in a role where I couldn’t do anything.

AA: Some people think ‘you’re just filling a quota, I’ll put you to one side’. You have to have that edge about you that gains respect first, before you get their attention.

CC: I think quotas would help – it would help the likes of me trying to get in the door at the moment!