Ladies first

The UK has the highest female unemployment rate out of all the major European Union countries, according to the government’s Women and Equality Unit. Yet with fast-changing demographics, the requirements of meeting a diverse customer base and the scarcity of skilled workers, traditionally male-dominated industries must now resort to formal ‘inclusion’ schemes to attract female recruits.

These industries are varied. The utility industry needs engineers, but in 2004, women only made up 2.8% of registrations of all chartered engineers and 10% of new registrations in the same year. Recent estimates for the male-dominated IT industry give women a 20% share of IT roles. Of the two million or so workers in construction, only around 190,000 are women, and they currently make up only around 3% of the Fire Service. These industries differ greatly, but they share a common public image of being dominated by men.

However, these and other similar employers recognise that this situation cannot continue, and many are responding by setting up formal schemes to redress the gender balance – and widen their net for potential recruits at the same time.

Electricity and gas network owner National Grid, for example, has set up a ‘Women in Networks’ scheme. Launched last November in the UK and the US, it aims to provide networking opportunities for women, and a chance to have a collective influence in company decision-making.


Denise Wilson, director of shared services at National Grid, which is made up of 80% men and 20% women, chairs the network.

“Sometimes a female member of staff can go quite a while in the workplace without seeing another woman,” she says. “The driving force behind the network is to make the company a place where women want to work.”

The scheme has 900 members, of which 10% are male. Wilson says it was essential that the scheme engaged with men as well.

“There was some resistance to the launch of the scheme at first,” she says. “But we researched how our male staff felt about the scheme before launching.”

Wilson says there is a compelling business case for proactively setting out to attract and retain women. “We are a community player, so our working population ought to reflect the community at large,” she says.

Reflecting the customer base is equally important. Utilities giant Centrica, owner of British Gas, has deliberately targeted women to be gas appliance engineers to fix domestic customers’ boilers. The company has found that customers respond well to a woman knocking on their front door, and anecdotal reports suggest that it is less intimidating for the firm’s vulnerable customers to be visited by female engineers.

But not every male-dominated industry has been as successful in attracting and retaining more women. The Fire Service has had a less than auspicious start to building up the numbers of women in its ranks. Since 1999, it has had a target for women to comprise 15% of its staff by 2009. This was set after an HM Fire Service Inspectorate report into equality and fairness concluded that the service was institutionally sexist.

The Fire Service should reflect who it serves, according to Vicky Knight, women’s representative on the Fire Brigades Union national executive. But since the proposed reforms, the organisation has struggled to come close to the target.

Knight says part of the problem is that interested parties, such as the individual fire brigades and the government, don’t fully co-operate when it comes to recruiting women.

The government has an awareness campaign in place to try to attract more women – including posting recruitment ads in ladies’ toilets in bars and clubs – but Knight says boosting the number of female recruits has led to a backlash from men in the service.


Once women join the Fire Service, retention is a problem. Many are driven away by the lack of female facilities in fire stations, and the lack of female-friendly policies, such as job sharing.

“There is a retention campaign launching now,” Knight says. “We need to make the Fire Service a welcome environment for women. The trouble is, change is expensive. Any money budgeted for female-friendly changes takes finance away from somewhere else.”

One of the issues in any male-dominated industry is its external image. With few books or television shows centred on female engineers or software programmers, young women thinking about university courses tend to pursue more gender-neutral routes such as law.

In 2003, the government launched a programme to get more women into science, engineering and technology, and created a UK resource centre to deliver this strategy, which is contracted until 2008. However, the programme’s functions focus on promotion and recognition of women in the industry, and there are no definitive targets.

One area suffering from a real lack of female role models is IT. Ann Swain, chief executive of the Association of Technology Staffing Companies, a body representing recruiters in the technology sector, says the Department of Trade and Industry should set targets for recruiting and retaining women in IT careers.

“Companies use IT contractors because they deliver a specific technical skill to solve an immediate problem,” Swain explains. “The ideal contractor needs to be constantly updating their skills. This can make it difficult for women to get back into the industry after even a short break.

“The government needs to give tax breaks on training for contractors to help workers keep abreast of developments. Contractors cannot offset training costs against their income.”

In areas with dire skills shortages, such as construction, opening up recruitment channels to encourage more women means businesses can sustain demand.

Business sense

A spokesman for the sector skills council CITB-ContructionSkills says: “Encouraging women into the industry is good business sense. Construction needs 87,000 new recruits each year, and we need to fill those jobs with people from all backgrounds, rather than the labour pool of white men who traditionally dominate the workforce.”

The council has introduced a couple of tools for employers to use to increase the number of female recruits.

‘STEP into Construction’ offers employers support for a six-week trial of a job-ready female, black or Asian candidate, for example. This is on the basis that there is a real job interview at the end of it, although the employer recruits on merit alone.

It is also involved in the ‘Sustainable Training for Sustainable Communities’ project as a joint initiative with the Housing Forum. This trains and qualifies local people on local housing refurbishment projects, and there is a particular emphasis on finding female, black and Asian trainees.

However, despite the skills council’s research which shows construction’s appeal among school girls has increased, the current number of women remains at just 1% of tradespeople and 11.6 % of those working in design and management occupations.

So could the government do more? The Women and Equality Unit, run by the Department for Communities and Local Government, says it is working with employers to make it easier to include women in the workforce. It has introduced a number of initiatives, such as providing more access to childcare and introducing flexible working arrangements, but the statistics show that schemes to boost the employment of women have only had limited success so far.

In some industries, it seems there is still some way to go before inclusion schemes for women really begin to bear fruit.

Case study: a woman in a man’s world

Vanessa Jeffrey is a construction planner working towards an HNC qualification in Construction Management. Her average day sees her monitoring the progress between what has been planned, and how far things have progressed on a building project. There is a good mix of office and on-site work, she says.

Jeffrey finds “working in a man’s world” a challenge, but this makes her more determined to succeed. “You deal with lots of people who have been in the industry a long time,” she says.

However, the one thing that has surprised her is that there is a significant number of women in construction, even if they only make up a small proportion of the overall workforce.

“I was surprised by the amount of women already in the industry – it really is a bit of a misconception that the industry is for men only,” she says.

Jeffrey advises women thinking of going into construction not to feel daunted by the stereotypical view of the industry.

“If you are a good communicator and like organising things, then construction planning would be a good career option,” she says. “You have to be confident in your abilities and dealing with others.”


Comments are closed.