Mind the gender gap

Employers are not doing enough to address the gender gap in the construction sector, according to a new survey by recruitment firm Hill McGlynn.

The research, which reveals 79% of employers are failing to focus on recruiting more women, follows a report earlier this year by the Equal Opportunities Commission that reported just 1% of construction jobs are held by women.

Mandy Clarke, group HR director of construction firm Halcrow Group, said there is a cultural and image problem which needs to be addressed. “This isn’t a quick fix. But it is changing,” she said.

“As a whole, the industry looks like it’s doing very little. But there are many organisations taking steps to attract more women.”

Gordon Healey, group HR director at Wilson Bowden, said although numbers of female staff are low on construction sites, women dominate other areas of the workforce. “Sales positions, quantity surveyors and customer care roles see high numbers of women. However, there still needs to be a mind shift to get women on site,” he said.

Sexism is an issue as roles such as builders and plumbers are still seen as ‘macho’ careers. Hill McGlynn’s survey also reveals that 66% of respondents are aware of sexism in the industry.

“There is still the perception that on-site roles should be male dominated because the work requires physical strength, when in reality most of the jobs don’t,” added Healey.

The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) is trying to address these gender myths and launched an advertising campaign earlier this year aimed at recruiting young women. Posters were placed in the changing room of clothes retailers Miss Selfridge, Pilot and New Look in a bid to attract more females to the industry.

“Our campaign is designed to break down gender barriers and has shown real success,” said the CITB’s chief executive, Peter Lobban.

Tony Hyde, managing director of Thomas Vale Construction, thinks the sector should focus on career advice in schools. “Plumbers can earn around £50,000 a year and carpenters around £40,000 – these salaries are higher than most careers offer after university, so it’s important young people realise the opportunities on offer,” he said.

Despite its gloomy headline figures, Hill McGlynn’s survey does report that 55% of employers have altered working hours and practices to accommodate the needs of their female employees.

Clarke, who said a third of her workforce is female, believes offering flexible working is key. “We offer a full range of flexible working practices and benefits which are open to all staff. We have found that this approach is very valuable in recruiting and retaining employees,” she said.

Alan Ritchie, general secretary of construction union Ucatt, agreed that more has to be done to increase flexible working practices. “It is clear that despite any efforts to recruit more women these will be wasted if no effort is made to retain those workers,” he said.

There are a number of firms launching positive initiatives. For example, Thomas Vale secured European Social Funding last year to provide five women with the chance to gain an NVQ working on a community housing project, refurbishing the kitchens and bathrooms of around 6,000 properties.

With the construction sector needing an extra 70-80,000 new recruits a year, Hyde said women workers are too valuable to be overlooked.

“The average age of workers is 52, so in the next 15 years we will see around half of the workforce disappearing. We simply can’t afford to ignore women in our recruitment drive,” he warned.

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