Women must mimic men to thrive? Constructors are debunking this myth

 Katy Harris is director of preconstruction for property services at Seddon

As we stood at the midpoint of 2023, the construction industry celebrated a notable milestone: 15.8 per cent of its workforce were women, a rise from 12.8 per cent pre-pandemic. This progress, though modest, is a beacon of change in an industry traditionally dominated by men. However, it also underscores a pressing need: the cultivation of a more inclusive environment that not only welcomes but also nurtures female talent.

Our industry, just as any other industry, stands to gain immensely from a more diverse workforce. Diversity is not just a metric to aspire to; it’s a business imperative. It fosters innovation, enhances decision-making and leads to elevated business outcomes. So the question arises: how can we, as contractors, further this positive trajectory?

Attracting more workers

The construction industry is currently grappling with a significant skills shortage, evidenced by the Construction Industry Training Board’s estimate that 225,000 more construction workers are needed by 2027. This situation necessitates an opportunity for a strategic approach to workforce recruitment, one that goes beyond the traditional image of a construction worker.

“The presence of women in leadership positions serves as a powerful testament to attainable success”

In 2023, 79 per cent of job seekers used social media in their job hunt, highlighting the importance of inclusive online branding and communication. Diversity in employment – be it gender, disability or ethnic background – requires representation. Without seeing themselves in the roles we promote, potential candidates may feel alienated from our industry.

Additionally, opportunities for training and entering the construction industry should be accessible at various stages of life. It’s crucial to facilitate the entry of young individuals equipped with pertinent skills. However, this focus should not overshadow the need to address broader demographic inclusivity. The gender pay gap remains a significant issue, with women in the UK earning substantially less than men. Recent data from the Office for National Statistics reveals an 8.3 per cent pay gap between full-time male and female employees. This disparity highlights the importance of creating equitable opportunities for all, regardless of career stage.

Retaining staff

Attracting talent is merely the first step. Retention hinges on a supportive and respectful workplace culture. Despite the progress made, more than half of women across all industries still report experiencing workplace bullying and harassment. This high incidence is further compounded by a culture of underreporting, indicating that the actual number might be even higher. This environment not only undermines the wellbeing and professional growth of women in the workplace but also significantly impedes efforts to retain talented female employees. At Seddon, we have a clear and unequivocal stance from leadership against any form of bullying and harassment. This stance is backed by robust policies, regular training, and an effective reporting system that assures confidentiality and protection from retaliation.

The industry must also acknowledge the importance of work-life balance. Women’s disproportionate responsibility for childcare and the lack of quality flexible working makes it difficult for them to balance work with family life. Half of women have said their boss had rejected their flexible-working request – or only accepted part of it. Flexible working hours, options for part-time work, and family-friendly policies can make a significant difference in attracting and retaining female talent. Addressing these concerns directly may be a game-changer in fostering long-term commitment and satisfaction among female employees.

Visibility matters

The presence of women in leadership positions within our industry serves as a powerful testament to attainable success. Actively promoting women into leadership roles and providing platforms for sharing experiences is vital. A 2020 Management Today report found that only 5 per cent of senior managers in the UK construction industry were women.

Mentoring is a powerful tool for supporting women in construction. By pairing female employees with experienced female mentors, contractors can provide the guidance, encouragement and career development opportunities necessary for growth. Additionally, mentoring out of the workplace and in the education system helps promote the industry to the next generation of the workforce. Myself, along with several female colleagues, have participated in the ‘big sister’ programme with Girls Out Loud. This initiative allows us to connect with young girls, introducing them to the diverse opportunities in construction. Our involvement not only serves to inspire these young minds but also provides us with invaluable insights into what future professionals are looking for from their careers.

The outdated belief that women must mimic male counterparts to thrive in the construction industry has been thoroughly debunked. For contractors industry-wide, the path forward involves embracing best practices in recruitment, retention, mentorship and workplace culture. By doing so, we lay the groundwork for a more inclusive and diverse industry.

My guidance to women considering a career in construction – advice I also shared recently with my own daughter – is to embrace authenticity and believe in your own ability. These are the tools to success.

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