Employing almost three million people and generating approximately £100bn every year for the UK economy, the construction industry is vital to the nation’s prosperity. It is also one of the fastest-growing industries in the UK. However, women still make up a very small proportion of its workforce.
There is an ongoing housing crisis, but it is not clear who is going to build the new homes the country needs. While investment in construction projects continues to rise, the workforce does
not appear to be growing as quickly. Too few apprentices and graduates are entering the sector, and finding suitable, skilled workers is a challenge. Women are woefully under-represented in the engineering and construction sectors, and it is affecting the economy.
According to a Women into Science and Engineering survey from 2017, only 11% of the engineering workforce is female. The report Engineering UK 2017 highlights that 265,000 skilled entrants are required annually to meet demand for engineering enterprises up to 2024. It is worth considering if this target is realistic given that the sector struggles with skills shortages and has an 89% male workforce.
In my experience, there are several reasons we do not see more women on construction sites. The first is stereotyping. Traditionally, engineering- and construction-related careers have been promoted to males more than females. As such, the average construction site has a macho culture, which some women find off-putting. The stereotype of the typical construction site worker also means that some women think they are not physically able to take on engineering-related tasks.
The pay disparity between men and women presents a barrier to attracting and retaining the industry’s female workforce. According to the Office for National Statistics, the pay gap between men and women working in construction stands at 45.4% – women are paid an average hourly rate of £8.04 compared with £14.74 for men.
Many women drop out of engineering- and construction-related careers as a result of the issues mentioned. In addition, some women find it difficult to re-enter the industry after having children or a career break.
While extreme sex discrimination is no longer a widespread issue, there remains a culture of undermining the decisions and competencies of women in engineering and construction. Many women believe they have to shout louder to be heard. Some women have also commented on ‘benevolent sexism’, which makes them feel awkward working in a male-dominated environment.
A lack of visible senior female leaders across the engineering and construction sector means that the industry does not appeal to some women. It’s a vicious cycle that’s hard to break, but not impossible.
If the UK construction industry is to deliver its many essential infrastructure projects – worth billions to the economy – it must retain its female employees and continue to attract a more balanced workforce.
To start with, construction and engineering careers should be promoted to more women. According to research by Girls in STEM, the UK needs 10,000 graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics every year simply to maintain the current workforce.
Statistics from Women’s Engineering Society show there has been very little change over the years in female uptake of and achievement in STEM subjects at GCSE. In 2016, 20% of A-level physics students were girls. That figure has not changed for 25 years.
Encouraging girls to consider STEM subjects when they choose their courses and career paths will go a long way towards bridging the skills gap in the sector.
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The industry must also do more to develop existing talent. We need to equip women with the appropriate training and knowledge to succeed in and be retained by the industry.
Engineering, construction and property companies should take action to address the issues that are preventing women from coming through and from staying in the sector. We need to ensure there are welcoming places for women to work and succeed.
The lack of female role models in leadership positions across the engineering sector is a big contributor to the lack of diversity in the industry. Successful women in engineering need to be seen and heard. This is essential to empowering other females.
Both women and men working in STEM must speak up about the challenges and opportunities available in engineering to educate and inspire the next generation of girls from an early age. Only then can we achieve gender equality on the construction site.