Construction’s recruitment crisis is often attributed to an image problem, but perhaps that image is absolutely correct – it’s the reality we need to change, and now.
The last few months have seen the European Women in Construction and Engineering Awards being announced, followed by the Women in Construction Summit – a brilliant platform to showcase women who have built successful careers in construction.
This celebration of women in the industry will, I am sure, touch on the ubiquitous gender pay gap and how to attract more women into the industry. These are well rehearsed subjects, which have been talked about since I was an undergraduate 40 years ago – but compared with other industries, remarkably little progress has been made in construction. This raises the question: Are we serious about redressing the gender balance in the industry or are we content to wring our hands and put it into the “too difficult” pile?
If we are serious, there is an easy way to realign the gender pay gap and address the balance of male/female talent coming into the construction industry: just pay women more. Not just more than they get now, but actually pay women more than men – let’s show the next generation that we are serious about changing our industry by upping the stakes and doubling the salaries of all women in the built environment. This would close the gender pay gap overnight.
Obviously, I am being flippant. Yet the principle about showing we are serious about changing the industry is not. We need to make radical change. We need to stop talking about doing things differently, and get on with actually doing things differently. And not just for women, but for all of those in the sector. Maybe women are the smart sex by choosing not to join our industry or not staying long in it, when the reality of it is that the industry just isn’t that attractive to potential employees across the board.
Many within the industry believe construction is suffering from an image problem that could be addressed by engaging more deeply with young people. While there is little doubt that our image is poor, I question whether that’s because of a lack of awareness. With 10% of the working population employed in construction, it’s very unlikely that a young person doesn’t know someone who works in it – your father’s friend or your friend’s mother – so what is the impression young people are taking away from these interactions?
Maria Coulter, who is a coach, trainer and director at the Construction Industry Council, sums it up perfectly: the debate about how to make the industry attractive to women veils the fact that the industry is not popular with anyone, not just women. At an event she recently ran, one of the panellists, a qualified engineer, talked about “toxic masculinity”, and how he – yes, he – felt it was no longer an industry in which he wanted to work. And statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that male site workers in construction are three times more likely than the average male to commit suicide.
So what’s to be done? Construction is a brilliant industry that has given millions of us meaningful and rewarding careers. If we want to attract and retain a diverse workforce, we can easily build a new reality to drive a better image. At Rider Levett Bucknall we have a long-term diversity, inclusion and wellness plan. We don’t underestimate the effort and resource that implementing it will require, but we are committed to creating better balance for all our staff through our five-point plan:
Setting the scene
- Zero tolerance of harassment, prejudice, bullying etc
- Positive signals – using images and words that reflect equality and diversity
- Embracing the impact of parenthood, taking childcare responsibilities into account when designing roles – encouraging part-time working and seriously reviewing maternity/paternity provision – does it match the best available?
- Adapting working culture – are the working hours and the travel distances killing our men and alienating our women?
Reducing isolation and novelty
- People in minority situations need support – role models, mentors and networks make a real difference
Equality of pay and opportunity
- What has our gender pay review really told us? How do the percentages of men and women compare at each grade? What percentage of women are promoted each year compared with men? We are now identifying and removing the underlying causes through training and development of our existing staff
Changing face of construction
- Using new technologies to bust old myths. The industry buzzwords for the 21st century must include: creative, empathetic, high-quality, interpersonal, meaningful and rewarding.
Other firms too are making changes. It is great to see players like Skanska take real action to make this industry a better place by signing the Time to Change pledge in association with charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. Skanska has committed to every manager going on a two-day mental health training course and it now has more than 200 mental health ambassadors within its business. It is also good to see more proposed changes to protect and promote the wellbeing of those who work in our industry.
The construction industry is one we should be proud to work in. It employs a significant proportion of our UK workforce in building new homes, schools, offices and places for us to work, live and play. We need to ensure we create a workforce that is inclusive, happy and healthy in this ecosystem and make this industry one that we can all be proud to be part of.
Ann Bentley is a global board director of Rider Levett Bucknall, a member of the UK government’s Construction Leadership Council and also a member of the CBI’s Construction Council.