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Becky Franklin shares our insights from the Women in Construction summit

Last Thursday (16 May), we were lucky enough to attend the Women in Construction Conference. As my first conference I can say it was very much a masterclass in female empowerment. Seeing so many women, courageously, share their experiences, some good and some bad, of what it is like to be a woman in construction really gave a good insight into the sector’s challenges.

In this blog, I share the key themes that emerged from the conference and my reflections on the day.

Over 3 million people work in the construction sector, but just 12% are women. I was reminded that, in fact, these figures have not changed since the 1970s.

Despite efforts to increase female representation in construction, firms are not managing to retain women for more than 5 years. And, with the uncertainty of Brexit, migrant workers that the construction sector has become so familiar in having access to, may not be readily available. With over 155,000 more people needed to make up the sector, according to the CITB, how are construction firms going to recruit women when little progress has been made in 50 years?

There was a clear call for change - a recognition that we cannot keep repeating mistakes. If we continue at the same pace, one speaker commented it would take over 100 years to gain equality in construction. We cannot wait that long.


Pride

I wanted to express how inspiring it was to listen to speakers who have so much pride in their work.

Our own research with the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Construction and Property Group supports this. We heard from our Founder, Jo Field, that over three-quarters of the women we surveyed are proud to work in the construction industry.

Just talking to women on Thursday, it was clear they felt pleased knowing they are shaping the world around us and quite literally, seeing their accomplishments from the ground up!


The main challenge

"The construction sector has developed systems to suit the people who work here, who for the last 200 years have been men.  These systems are now no longer fit for purpose."

This was Manon Bradley’s statement during the conference. It couldn’t be more accurate.

History has created a system whereby men have dominated the sector and often the leadership of construction firms has been passed down from father to son. For hundreds of years, the sector has been seen as male-dominated. Women have tried to ‘fit into’ this male arena but the system is not designed for them. And it is not changing fast enough to help tackle the issues women are facing.

Construction firms do not fully understand the barriers facing women.

What needs to change?

One of the most common topics raised at the conference was the need for flexible working. This is a major challenge for construction due to the need for site and shift work. This is something Jo Field raised in the panel debate on Intersectionality. Our own research with CIPR found 88% of women believed flexible working was the answer to attracting more women. Jo said this is an issue that comes up time and time again.

Some firms explained how they had successfully trialled fluctuating shifts. Our Chair for the day, Isabel Coman of SCS Railways, said she will be piloting a two-month flexible working trial on HS2 where every member of the team and supply chain will be asked to consider a flexible working arrangement. 

If flexible working could be rolled out among more companies, it would not only benefit women but every employee!

Another key issue was male-biased networking events.

Examples include golf days or events where there may be heavy drinking. These are often unappealing to women and many cultural groups. Making events more inclusive would allow a greater pool of employees to participate in networking opportunities and create a better work environment for everyone.

Finally, it was clear the systems of maternity leave and returning to work need to be as robust as the systems that allow employees to go part-time or take sick leave. Maternity policies should prioritise  keeping women informed about work while away, and help them return still on track for promotion.

These small but simple concepts would make a huge difference to the retention of women.

Better Engagement and Education

The most talked about theme was the need for better engagement and education within the current workforce and with future employees. Providing information to girls from a young age - highlighting role models, demonstrating the variety of work within the construction industry and having attractive company benefits will, in the long run, see more women enter the sector.

Many speakers thought there will be an increase in girls considering a career in construction if construction companies partner with school career advisors and create effective careers campaigns.

Looking to the Future

There was much agreement that companies need to set better targets and increase their effort in female recruitment. Rewarding women’s achievements and profiling role models will change the belief system of current employees.

The conference was a great way to empower women in construction. But it was surprising to see few men in the audience. For women to succeed, we will need the full support of male allies. 

If there is no mandate to attract women, no role models and no attempt to change industry culture, companies will continue to struggle to attract and retain women. 

While there is much room for growth in the sector, the industry needs to ‘shout’ more about the amazing initiatives to improve gender equality and the interesting range of projects to work on.

JFG Communications specialises in working with transport, infrastructure and construction organisations. We advise businesses on how they can create gender diversity and inclusion policies and communications to increase female representation at all levels.

To learn more about how JFG Comms can help your organisation check out our work or get in touch