Features - Employment

Changing Perceptions to Address Construction Gender Imbalance.

Jane Keely is the Director at Assent Building Control, in this feature she takes a look at changing perceptions in construction to close the gender gap imbalance in the sector.

Anyone working within the construction industry will be familiar with its lack of diversity in terms of gender. According to an analysis of official statistics by GMB, the union for construction workers, just one in eight construction workers are women, a rate that will take almost 200 years to balance out if left to continue. As someone who deals with problem solving on a day-to-day basis, I know as well as most that in order to come to an effective solution for the industries gender imbalance, we must first fully understand the cause of the problem. I began my career in construction over 30 years ago and I can say for certain that my experience has been different in a number of ways to my male peers. But not necessarily in the ways that one might expect.

There seems to be a certain perception of how the construction industry treats its female workers, and while I can only speak from my own experience, I can say that quite often this perception doesn’t quite align with reality. While some may believe that the industry rejects and silences women, I’m pleased to say that I’ve been warmly welcomed and supported since day one. During my time as Chair on the Institute of Building control, now part of the RICS, I felt continuously supported and encouraged. And regularly being the only woman in the room, I have always felt the support of the male building control officers, above and beside me. My experience has led to be believe that there is definitely positive discrimination within our sector, to counter its male dominated culture. I strongly believe that many women would be pleasantly surprised upon pursuing their careers in a sector that holds such strong misconceptions.

The perception of the how the industry treats women is not the only one that we need to strive to change. We also need to ensure women and young people have a clear understanding of the various transferable skills that they may well possess, making them ideal candidates for the industry. There is space for much more than traditionally perceived masculine qualities in the building regulations sector and wider industry. While assertiveness, leadership and competitiveness have their place within the industry, equally so does empathy, collaboration and intuition. And while I’m well aware that men and women tend to possess a mixture of all of these skills, I think young women and girls considering a career in construction, may find reassurance that all can be used and built on in somewhat equal measure.

There are, of course, some barriers experienced by women that still need to be addressed. While attracting young female talent to the industry is a key priority to not only addressing the gender imbalance but also narrowing the overall skills gap, retaining that talent often throws up some issues. When I started a family, I had to make some difficult decisions in regard to my career. These decisions saw me leave my job in local authority, to take up a less senior role in a private company, for the simple reason that it meant I could manage the nursery drop off and pick up. It is for reasons like this that many women make the switch to part-time at often the most crucial point of their careers. While part-time work may appear to offer some flexibility, in reality, it’s often extremely tiring having to share your time between childcare and your career. As long as the onus of responsibility falls on women to be the primary caregiver within the family, this will continue to be a problem.

What’s more, this issue has been exacerbated over the past 14 months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, when we saw women sacrificing more of their careers to stay at home with their children and care for elderly relatives. A report published by Pinset Masons, based on the 118 construction employers Gender Pay Gap (GPG) data for the year 2020-21, shows that larger businesses reported a 20% average median pay gap between male and female employees – indicating a higher average pay gap than the 2020 reports published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which came to 11.4% for the sector as a whole.

Throughout my career I have found myself in a number of instances where my authority may not have been valued in the way that a mans would have been. This was especially challenging early on, when I would give men instructions for adjustments and I would often find them dragging their feet, something that my male peers didn’t seem to experience to the same level. The nature of my role as a Building Control Inspector has always meant that I am often stepping into situations that are underpinned by dispute on some level. Combining this with being the only woman on site can make it a daunting task. Luckily, I was always able to overcome these hurdles because of the backing of the people within my organisation, who went out of their way to ensure I never felt as if I was alone in what I was dealing with.

It is down to everyone in the industry to make sure they are doing everything they can to bring in new talent, both male and female. One of the most effective ways of reaching the next generation is through the offer of dynamic and valuable apprenticeship programmes.

Apprenticeship profile – Charlotte

Charlotte recently onboarded to Assent’s Degree Apprenticeship programme, and she is keen to inspire more young women to do the same. As someone that had always known she wanted a career in construction – nurturing a love for architecture and design from a young age – Charlotte was attracted to the world of Building Control and the opportunities and responsibilities it could offer her. Building Control not only shapes the future of construction, but it also helps to improve the general public’s safety and can make a real impact in society. As a young person excited for the future, those impacts were something Charlotte was keen to be a part of.

I met Charlotte at an open evening for degree apprenticeships at Sheffield Hallam University. Here, I spoke to her about what a typical day as a building control inspector involves. From independently managing projects with a variety of clients to site inspections and analysing and checking construction plans, this all appealed to Charlotte who liked the idea of a fast-paced work environment that involved interacting with the public and knowledge building.

Through her apprenticeship, Charlotte is able to study her BSc (Hons) degree in Building Control at University College of Estate Management (UCEM), at the same time as working for a professional building control company. Within her first week as an apprentice, Charlotte was accompanying a senior surveyor on site – seeing first-hand the importance and responsibility building control surveyors have.

Upon completing her degree, the apprenticeship provides Charlotte with a fast-track route to the industry, qualifying her as a chartered surveyor with RICS. With an exciting future ahead of her, she’s enjoying being part of an industry that encourages integration with a range of different people, ongoing learning and working to positively impact society as a whole. It’s great to see this career path appealing to young women like Charlotte and hopefully will continue to bring many more valuable skills to the industry.

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