Subconscious issues still hold women back

Sue Hunter is a director at Bentley

I joined the construction industry in the late 90s, and it was clear from the outset that there was more onus on women to prove themselves in terms of skills and competence, whereas male peers were treated with an immediate level of trust and respect, often regardless of their skills and experience.

“The industry tends to look to females to pick up those more administrative tasks, for example taking minutes or arranging refreshments for meetings”

Despite 20 years of progress, I still subconsciously witness this behaviour today. Women are still more likely to volunteer for additional work outside of their job description and I believe this is owed to a subconscious desire to prove themselves and their value.

That’s not to say the industry hasn’t come a long way and undergone significant change. I can categorically say the business I work for selects the right person for the job, regardless of gender.

However, while we are seeing an influx of women in quantity surveying and project-management roles, there is still a clear gap on roles that are deemed more ‘technical’ – such as engineering, for example.

Gender pay gap

The most widely reported issue for women in the industry remains the pay gap. The industry overall is making a conscious effort to ensure both men and women compete on a level playing field when it comes to pay, and I think this is largely down to the great work that local authorities do in setting salaries in relation to skills, with no other factors coming into play. When you have the public sector paving the way and abolishing the pay gap, it’s no coincidence that businesses that work closely with them are following suit.

Another issue to be addressed relates to the ‘subconscious’ I mentioned earlier. The industry tends to look to females to pick up those more administrative tasks, for example taking minutes or arranging refreshments for meetings. It’s clear that 99 per cent of the time this is unintentional, but we must ensure these tasks fall to the person responsible, whether male or female.

There are so many roles within construction that can be accessed by the skill set that you build throughout your career. I started off as a quantity surveyor for a subcontractor before taking some time away during the recession to work for myself in a different sector.

When I returned, I knew I would have to take a step down because although I had retained the skills required to do the job, I’d taken a break (again, more women take a break than men for obvious reasons), so I decided to retrain at my local council as a project manager.

Since then, I’ve held various roles from regeneration manager for a local authority, onsite project manager and business development manager for a main contractor, to now being part of a consultancy where I run projects including public realm improvements, a Grade II-listed heritage refurbishment and the construction of a new bridge, to name a few.

It’s fantastic that a career in construction offers a sheer variety of opportunities, and the fact it allows you to regularly problem solve is another reason why it is an attractive proposition for many, not just women.

What else is needed?

One word springs to mind here: flexibility. In many circumstances, women still act as the primary caregivers, and therefore benefit from more flexibility in their working day.

Construction is often seen as a very location-based profession. However, around 75 per cent of the offsite work during preconstruction can be done from anywhere, at any time of day. The pandemic proved this when we saw the industry boom with people working remotely.

By offering a more flexible working environment, the industry would be far more appealing to women, who would feel trusted and valued to carry out their roles without the constraints of the nine-to-five office environment.

Aside from women, the industry is currently experiencing a skills gap and crying out for the next generation, and the only way it can entice these individuals is with flexibility.

As mentioned previously, the industry is making great steps in the right direction, which is fantastic to see. But there is still work to be done.

The key to achieving an inclusive industry is women feeling empowered to address any situations where they feel that they are being treated differently due to their gender. This doesn’t have to be confrontational, and I believe much of what women experience now is bestowed upon them subconsciously, so some open and honest conversations can set us on the right path to inclusivity.

Information on this year’s Inspiring Women in Construction & Engineering Conference & Awards – hosted by Construction News and sister titles New Civil Engineer and Ground Engineering – can be found here

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