200 yrs before we reach gender equality in construction? The numbers show it will be more like 1000.

Updated: Jun 14, 2019

Here are three reasons why it might get even worse.

There's been much noise this week about a report from the GMB that it will take almost 200 years to achieve gender equality in construction. The report is based on statistics that show a rise of just 2.1% from 10.4% in 2009 to 12.5% in 2018. To be clear, I don't disagree with these numbers; it's just that they only tell half the story.

To understand the reality of the situation we have to look at the figures for the previous ten years (below) can you see the problem?

Graph 1 Representation of the percentage of women in the construction sector (Office for National Statistics, 2018)

Right around 2008, the % of women in construction took a nosedive by 2.33%. That means that we had more women in construction as a percentage in 2006 then we do now. Depressingly if you use the 12.5 figure reported by GMB, there were more women in construction (as a percentage) in 1997 (12.72) than there were in 2018.

That means if a similar drop in the percentage of women happens in the next recession, we will likely be back to square one.

So how do we stop this from happening again? We need to review our approach to solving this problem, as current efforts might be inadvertently adding to it.

Here are the three main reasons why we might not achieve gender parity anytime soon.

Focus on recruitment

Most of the work we do around women in construction is focused on early-career recruitment, but the number of women in the industry is not improving in line with the number of women coming in to the industry. The lack of improvement can be explained by research that shows women only stay in the construction sector an average of five years*.

Let's do the maths here. If we know, women only stay in construction for an average of five years, and organisations don't tend to recruit in a recession. Are we really surprised to see drop-in numbers when we hit a downturn?

Focus on the Skills shortage

The problem with the skills shortage argument is that it implies that we only need women when we don't have enough men. Construction is often described as an industry "either looking for work or looking for people" **. So, in a recession, when we are not looking for people, does this mean that we don't need to be employing women?

Of course, if you are reading this you probably don't think that way, but that's part of the problem. We need to start thinking the way most of the industry thinks if we are to really tackle the challenges of gender parity.

Ignoring retention

Very little work focuses on retaining women, or any other minority group for that matter, in industry. Even when it does, it can often hold women up as the problem*** or fail to give practical advice around how to overcome the challenges they face in the industry.

Let me be clear about this; women do have a different experience of the construction sector to men. More importantly, this doesn't need to be the end of the world. If we were able first to admit there is a difference of experience. Then try and understand how that difference of experience impacts people. We might be able to address it. Addressing the challenge would likely see a vast improvement in our retention rates.

Unfortunately, organisations mostly portray that women have equal experience and fail to take any action. At the same time, women often feel that by admitting that we face additional challenges in the workplace, we are branded as "weak" or "not able to handle it". This results in the issue being ignored or even denied****.

This needs to change. What if we simply recognised that some groups have a different experience of the workplace to others, and putting the right tools in place to overcome these obstacles would advantage everyone? Wouldn't that be helpful?

We have set up The Duck Project to do just that, its a system to help individuals take control of their careers by identifying, understanding and addressing inequality. Do have a look and see if it can help you or your organisation.

We need to think differently about the challenge of female representation in the construction industry. If we don't, I fear in a thousand years we will still be reading precisely the same headline.

* Before you say it, no they don’t all leave to have babies, around a third do but the rest tend to cite things like “culture” and “lack of opportunity”. For me this raises the more interesting question of why don’t they come back? They do in other sectors?

** I think it was Graham Watts of the CIC

*** They are absolutely not

****I certainly denied my experience of industry for around eight years.

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