Employers need to attract more women into construction and retain them

Jane Atkinson is executive director of engineering, automation and projects at Bilfinger UK

Many of us have campaigned for years to bring more women into the sector. But, sadly, the improvement has been marginal at best.

The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data tells us that just 13 per cent of the construction industry in the UK is made up of women – a figure that has not improved meaningfully for more than 20 years. While we have seen the proportion of female engineers rise significantly over that period – now up to 14.5 per cent – it remains a thoroughly male-dominated occupation.

We know a leaky pipeline still exists, which is evident from the earliest stages of career development. According to a 2021 report by Atkins, women leave the construction sector for other industries at more than twice the rate of men, and more than one in 10 women aged 20-34 leave to work elsewhere each year.

There remains a clear equality problem, but we have to start viewing the imbalance as more than that to truly tackle it.

Skills gaps are one of the biggest long-term threats to our industry, and there is a real concern that skills are being lost as older generations retire and are not being replenished fast enough to meet demand. Put simply, we cannot afford to keep losing so many talented people.

Changing perceptions

So how can employers attract more women, and retain those who do choose a career in construction and engineering?

We have a job to change how the industry is perceived, both by young people and their parents, in terms of the nature of roles and the opportunities that exist. Many still think of construction as a very physical industry that involves ‘getting your hands dirty’. For most graduates, this is far from the reality.

Opportunities are plentiful. You only need to consider that graduate engineering salaries are some of the highest in the market to understand that this is not the case. Anyone who has worked in the sector understands that talented young engineers are hugely in demand.

Employers and industry bodies need to work together to shout about this. Role models are critical, and we need to see more of the recent work of Women into Construction, the Royal Academy of Engineering and Construction News’ Inspiring Women in Construction and Engineering initiative.

Mending the pipeline

We also have a job to do in retaining women, specifically those who have children. We need to embrace the sharing of childcare responsibilities more widely. There is an onus on employers to lead this, and it is encouraging to see major contractors, such as Kier and Wates, increase their paid paternity leave policies recently.

“We need to embrace the sharing of childcare responsibilities more widely. There is an onus on employers to lead this”

When it comes to flexible working, we need to ensure people do not become less visible in organisations and miss out on career development opportunities as a result. Some have suggested quotas for women in senior roles are the way forward, but a cautious approach is needed.

Selecting any candidate for a challenging role based on their gender – or any other aspect of their identity – rather than because they are the best person for the job is a risky strategy. Over-promoting somebody to fulfil a quota makes it more likely that they will fail, potentially damaging their career progression and the wider perception of women in the industry.

Instead of hard quotas, we need employers to have firmly held ambitions to increase diversity at the top, and for them to be prepared to make the long-term investments that will make that possible. This means participating in outreach programmes and working closely with educational institutions to help change longstanding negative perceptions. It means providing the right training and support at every level to tackle the ‘leaky pipeline’.

Looking to the future

The sector is clearly taking action, but there is a long way to go. With current and looming skills challenges presenting such a significant threat, businesses cannot afford to not attract more females into their workforce or risk losing them to other industries.

We need to work hard to show the next generation that careers in construction and engineering are for everyone, and make good on the promise by nurturing talented women as they progress in their careers. It will take investment now, but the future rewards will be well worth it.

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