Construction has a reputation as an industry which has done little to address the shortfall in its female workforce, but there is evidence of positive change and huge potential for further progress in the coming years. Katherine Naisbitt, Commercial Director at C80 Group, discusses the challenges and the opportunities for women in construction.
Having worked in various other sectors, from manufacturing and waste management to recruitment and consulting, I somewhat stumbled into construction by accident, but it was an industry that I understood straight away - it always felt a natural fit. Although I started a career in construction without any qualifications specific to the industry, I arrived with one advantage as I already had the commercial awareness that many businesses value.
I appreciate that my relatively smooth acclimatisation is not an experience shared by all women, and many have never considered a career in construction due a widespread perception of the industry as a male-dominated environment. We have a responsibility to address that perception – I firmly believe that there are countless other women that would also find a natural career path in construction if they could be persuaded to embrace our sector.
Go Construct reported that 14% of people working in construction are women. Whilst that percentage leaves a lot of room for improvement, it’s encouraging to see that numbers are showing an increase – women now make up 37% of the new entrants coming into construction from higher education. I would expect to see that figure continue in the right direction, but we also need to do more to attract women at all levels, including the industry’s ‘grassroots’ where the gender gap is most conspicuous.
In 2017, the government implemented an apprenticeship levy giving companies an incentive to invest in apprenticeships, with funds topped up by the government. It was a positive step in encouraging young people and students into the industry, but the skills shortage in construction remains a significant issue and the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) has called on the chancellor to give apprenticeships a further boost.
Can apprenticeships be used as a tool to encourage women into the industry? It would require a collective effort between the government, construction companies and learning/training providers, signposting the opportunities that our industry has to offer to female job seekers.
I think that many women of all ages could be receptive to that kind of effort. Covid has threatened job security in various sectors, prompting much of the UK’s workforce to consider a career reboot. Whilst construction has also felt the effects of the pandemic, it has been less severely impacted than many other industries, and can offer a route to employment to thousands of women seeking a move from sectors such as retail and hospitality which have suffered major job losses. Inspiring women to join our industry has the potential to account for a large proportion of the shortfall in our workforce.
There are signs that construction is becoming more proactive in reaching out. Many companies are tailoring their recruitment marketing to appeal to women, with advertising explicitly encouraging female applicants, keen to tap into their potential. Having worked in multiple sectors in my own career, I know that many skills are transferable to construction and numerous women could bring theirs to the benefit of our industry.
In every sector I’ve experienced, many of my most impressive colleagues and associates have been women whose attributes are very common within our female workforce: a strong mind, commercial astuteness, empathy, and a forward-thinking mindset with an ability to position and see from every business angle. Those personal and professional qualities are an asset to any business, and I know that they are enormously valuable in construction.
That’s certainly the case at C80 Group, where growth is extremely important to our multi-disciplinary building consultancy; not just in terms of revenue, but in terms of investing in our employees as part of the company’s wider vision. We recognise the potential within our people, male and female, and work to embrace and develop that potential. In our environment, your gender doesn't matter. What matters is your ability and what you have to offer. There has never been (and never will be) any limitations on career advancement within our group.
The pandemic made 2020 a challenging year for businesses worldwide, and C80 Group was no exception, but we managed to sustain our growth throughout the period, recruiting six new staff to facilitate our expansion. I’m delighted to say that half of those recruits were women. Their addition to our group has brought expertise, skill and commitment in business development, marketing and operations, demonstrating the benefits that construction companies can gain from attracting female talent. They have become vital members of our team as C80 Group moves forward to develop new opportunities, plan further investment and harness technological advances in the delivery of our services.
Many of construction’s reputational problems in relation to gender issues stem from the notion that it’s an unwelcoming working environment for women - the wolf-whistling builder is a well-worn stereotype - and you can still find examples in sites and offices which reinforce that notion. However, over the course of 20 years in construction I can say with confidence that much has improved over two decades, with many companies adopting policies and nurturing cultures that promote gender equality and embrace the contribution that women can make to our industry.
Some admirable work is being done by initiatives such as Women into Construction, an independent not-for-profit organisation that promotes gender equality in construction. It provides bespoke support to women wanting to work in the industry, and assists contractors in recruiting highly motivated, trained women, helping to create a more gender-equal workforce.
Women into Construction was formed as part of the legacy of the 2012 Olympics. It was driven by the belief that increasing the number of women working on a high-profile site such as the Olympic Park would create a trickle-down effect throughout the industry. The project showed that many women are highly motivated to take opportunities within the sector, and how they achieve a positive contribution once brokered into placements and employment.
In my opinion, increasing the visibility of women in construction is key to dispelling the perception of a male-dominated culture and promoting a sense of gender equality. Increasing the number of women in construction will improve that visibility and attract more female intake as a result – more of a snowball effect than a trickle-down effect.
If I were to offer advice to a woman considering a career in construction, I would suggest that it’s worth pursuing. Just like any other industry, if it feels like a good fit then the enjoyment and motivation will come naturally. From a personal perspective, I’ve always believed that any working environment should be a place where male and female colleagues can hold their own and have a laugh - at themselves and each other - whilst appreciating that respect works both ways.
There are certain successful dynamics that will always endure, regardless of the industry or gender mix. No one man or woman achieves everything on their own; what we might perceive to be personal success is often made possible because the people we surround ourselves with are the people who push us to be our best self. Every conversation can be a lesson.
Like everyone, I’ve had my ups and downs, but I’ve always learned those lessons and taken them with me. I believe that you should never shy away from an opportunity or a challenge - every day is a chance to take a step forward and evolve. A thriving working environment is a place where people back you and root for your success. They help you to discover your true strengths and, armed with that self-knowledge and self-confidence, you can become your own greatest supporter!
During my time in construction, working for a range of companies as well as running my own business, I’ve been lucky to be part of business cultures that promote those ideas. I’ve made many lasting friendships – male and female - along the way. After 20 years, I still love what I do and the people I work with. The industry is big enough for all of us. For women, the opportunities are there for the taking!