Construction and gender parity: Interview by Lexis Nexis and LexisPSL

April 23, 2016

Construction analysis: Are women breaking through the construction glass ceiling? Sarah Schütte of Schutte Consulting, and Clare Bristow, group legal director at Arup Group Limited, comment on what appears to remain a male dominated industry—and what changes are needed.

 

Why does the construction industry remain so male­-dominated while other more traditional male/female employment roles have seen greater equality in recruitment?

Sarah Schütte (SS): I think the biggest reason the construction world remains dominated by men is because it suffers from an image problem. The image is a traditional one, and not entirely accurate these days—for example, many things have changed for the good (such as the working environment and health and safety). However, many things have not changed. Some cannot be helped to some extent (such as dust and noise) but some can, and should (such as ‘banter’). More than anything else, this is hindering women from seeing its attraction as a career option.

 

To be more accurate, the image puts off girls and young women. Here’s an example: when I had cause to need site boots for the first time a few years ago, I had to order them specially. I did not mind this (I have small feet), although it illustrates the fact that not many women go on site. What followed was the ‘joke’ from the contract manager that he expected I would want them in pink! This was an instinctive reaction. Thus the industry’s poor image pervades.

 

Clare Bristow (CB): It’s perfectly reasonable to say that the construction industry is still male­dominated. I doubt too many people would argue with that today. However, there are many advocates working extremely hard to make a change for the better, not just in terms of gender diversity, but across the spectrum. The question now is whether we can pick up the pace. In my mind that’s a reasonable challenge for all of us.

 

My own firm is focussing on equality in recruitment globally. In the UK, our graduate intake comprises 35% women— recruited from a group that has just 14% women within the total graduate pool available. It’s better than most. And we know that, because we benchmark against our peers.

 

Is the sector doing enough to attract women to the construction industry?

 

SS: There are lots of initiatives aimed at attracting women. It’s interesting to see the approach taken by the different representative bodies and individual organisations. Some of the campaigns are very thought­provoking. The Institution of Engineering and Technology, for example, is hosting an annual Open House day where girls can visit an ‘engineering’ environment and see it for themselves. I love the current #GirlsCan campaign too. More can always be done, and more should be done, as the quest for parity is far from over.

 

Women’s networking groups are great for women at all levels of their careers (I joined Women in Construction and Women in Property, for example), but for younger girls, it starts with school, and mentoring by those women already in industry. I am in discussions with my old school to give a presentation about being a lawyer and business entrepreneur in the construction industry. A little of ‘giving back’ to the next generation and encouraging them on their way.

 

We also need a cultural change, but this is more difficult to achieve and takes time and education. I would like to see more men bringing their practical experience into the classroom.

 

CB: The simple fact that just 14% of the available graduate pool are women suggests not. But that story starts a lot earlier in life, from pre­school all the way through to the choices young women make at A­level and on to college. At Arup we regularly go to schools and do various talks and activities to encourage under 18s to consider a career in the construction industry.

 

Thankfully, we’re seeing some of the old stereotypes dissipate as more women get exposure to construction and engineering in the media and in senior positions. There is a long way to go and, unfortunately, there’s a long cultural legacy that has to be overcome to change perceptions.

The usual definition of ‘construction’ is perhaps too narrow these days. There are many different disciplines, professions and specialisms—new and old—that are having a greater impact on the built and natural environment. Many of these are much less male dominated.

 

Associated careers in design, engineering and architecture have seen growth in the number of women—how have these been achieved?

 

SS: It’s true that these careers have seen huge growth in popularity over the past decade or two. It’s really exciting to see women excelling in these areas, and making a difference to the construction industry in a broader sense. I see the main reason for growth being the vocational nature of these professions. Women can see they have a meaningful and stimulating futures, which will continually challenge them and provide opportunities for personal growth.

 

I really love working with women on projects and, in another life, I would choose one of these professions. They seem to facilitate the release of creative flair, and to fire something in women to ‘build’ without actually building. The built environment is a richer place for it, I truly believe it. Women bring a different perspective to problem­solving and a tenacity to find solutions. They don’t stop at ‘adequate’. The outputs of female design and engineering are really imaginative and very practical (wide walkways, sufficient bathrooms). Women such as Zaha Hadid and Louise Bourgouise have been incredibly influential in these fields. I would love my five­year­old daughter to combine her talents in maths and drawing and become an architect or civil engineer.

 

CB: Design in the wider sense has had a bit of a head start as it doesn’t come with quite the same baggage as construction, but you could be right about engineering and architecture. I think we all agree there’s something that works in terms of seeing strong female role models. The late Zaha Hadid was certainly a very powerful signifier that there is a place for women in architecture, for example, and at Arup there are many examples of senior women in engineering, architecture, project management and consultancy.

 

The good news is that the wider construction industry already has a reasonably good idea about what we need to do to make it happen:

• working with young girls in schools
• working across industry to encourage young talent
• growing the pool of young women choosing STEM subjects
• showcasing success stories across the sector, and
• ensuring that the industry creates a diverse working environment for everyone

 

At Arup, we’re not just making sure that the firm’s procedures include training but also ensuring women are represented on our boards and executives. That type of bold policy decision helps keep us in The Times Top 50 Employers for Women list each year. There remains a huge amount of work to do and it will take a while. But, increasingly, I think the commitment is there from the industry to make it happen.

 

Site work is probably seen as the most male­dominated aspect of construction due to its physical demands. However, with women in the armed forces and other extremely demanding roles, why is site work a bastion of masculinity?

 

SS: It’s perhaps not so much the work itself, but the attitudes which go with it, such as ‘women don’t like to get their hands dirty’ or they might ‘break a nail’. There is certainly a place for common sense, and perhaps even chivalry, but when it spills over into ‘banter’, that’s when professional ambitious and intelligent women are turned off. And they will remain turned off unless men change their attitudes and work with them on an equal basis. It will take concerted effort and a bombardment of the industry from several angles to start making a real impact. But it will happen. Those of us in the industry who take time to work intelligently with women are doing our own little bit towards realising parity in our children’s lifetimes.

 

CB: I’m not sure there’s really a question about it today. Many of our women consultants, engineers and architects visit site on a regular basis. Anyone who has seen a well­managed, safe, modern building site in action will know that this shouldn’t be an issue. Technology and modern working practices have helped move things on a lot from that perspective. Having said that, there are still downsides of site work that can make it harder for people—both men and women—who can’t relocate to the next job as easily or who need flexibility to look after young children or elderly relatives for instance.

 

Tackling that means taking on wider societal issues as well as creating far greater work flexibility within the industry. But other than that, I think site work is far less of a barrier for women than it was.

 

From an Arup perspective, diversity and inclusion is integral to everything we do. It’s championed at board level right the way through our business. It’s built into our operating budget and we measure our effectiveness and benchmark ourselves against other organisations, to ensure we are the employer of choice for top female talent. Arup endeavour to set a new standard for diversity within the engineering and construction industry. Some key facts:

  • in an industry where just 5.5% of engineering professionals are women, our graduate intake comprises of 35% women, from a female graduate pool of just 14%

  • 32% of our UK staff are women—our proportion of female staff is well above the Association for Consultancy and Engineering benchmark, which lies at only 20%

• our proportion of women leaders has grown, against a significantly lower industry average—we have more female directors than ever before and we are passionate about developing this pipeline

 

Interviewed by Nicola Laver.

 

The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

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