It’s no secret: the construction industry has a significant gender gap. The latest figures show that women make up just 12.8% of the workforce in the UK – often sitting away from the site in supporting roles in admin, HR or marketing.
As an industry, we know that this needs to change. Construction has a significant talent shortage, and attracting more women to the industry could go a long way to tackling the shortfall. It’s also been proven that more diverse companies perform better.
Efforts to improve construction’s gender balance may not be reaching young people. Right now, many parents and teachers still say the industry is “not for girls” – and the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineering professionals in Europe, at just 5%.
So how can we bring about change more quickly? This International Women’s Day, I spoke with two of my colleagues at Autodesk – Rachael Atkinson, Construction Customer Marketing Manager EMEA, and Sarah French, BIM 360 Implementation Consultant – to hear about their experiences as women in construction and their views on how the industry can change.
“Being told it wasn’t for girls made me determined to do it”
Like many people, Sarah didn’t consciously seek out a role in the construction industry. She did, however, want to do something not considered usual for a woman: “To be honest, I studied Mechanical Engineering at college and university not just because I liked to know how things worked, but also as I knew it wasn’t the norm for a woman. Being told by my high school teacher that design technology GCSE wasn’t for girls made me more determined to do it.”
Rachael’s interest in construction first emerged when she realised she wanted to study a subject that created an actual product at the end of the process – and her skillset pointed her towards quantity surveying: “I’m interested in facts and logic, so I looked for a career at the centre of projects, understanding the reasons behind decisions and the implications of design methodologies.”
After positions as a quantity surveyor and cost manager, Rachael’s role became more focused on the digital technology being adopted across the industry: “It was such an exciting time to watch the early adopters of BIM moving the construction industry to a digital future.” She joined the Construction Industry Council as part of the BIM2050 Group: “We had the remit to future-gaze to 2050 and envisage the end state of construction – and provide direction on how to get there.”
Rachael then joined Autodesk to be “connected to the forefront of digital technology and advancement, working with our customers as part of their digital transformation programmes.” Sarah’s career took her from timber design firms through a tier 1 construction firm, to becoming a BIM specialist at Autodesk.
“I had to work harder to prove myself to certain male colleagues”
Both Sarah and Rachael have been part of teams with a significant gender imbalance. Sarah recalls that in her previous companies she was near enough the only woman in each department she worked in, and the customers she dealt with were all male.
Rachael’s experiences varied more between her jobs: “Whilst working in my ‘on-site’ roles there were significantly less females; often I was the only one, which led to some amusing situations. Within the professional consulting sphere there is much more of a gender balance, leading to me working within my first female-led construction project team.”
Rachael is clear though that her male colleagues were always supportive:
“I must say that despite being the minority in many situations, this did not stop my male colleagues treating me as an equal. Focusing on the outputs and quality of work, compared to gender stereotypes.”
Sarah says, “Probably at the time, without thinking about it, I had to work harder to prove myself to certain male colleagues. I have found that, on-site more than in the office, my male colleagues have not really been bothered about my sex – just that I’ve done a good job. If anything, being a woman has given me some advantages, as some male colleagues reacted differently to me and that made it easier for me to get them onboard with certain tasks.”
Attracting more women to the industry
Rachael thinks that the construction industry is trying to build greater diversity, but more needs to be done: “We need more investment to attract new talent early and educate our school teachers, student and parents that the construction industry covers a plethora of roles, beyond physical labour.”
Sarah agrees that educating young people will be key: “I think the construction industry itself is not visible to younger people. I’ve seen that many just think construction is on site building and not maybe roles like finance, law and design. Getting young people into the office and on-site to show them all the aspects of construction can help to make them aware of the potential career opportunities.”
In Rachael’s view, building greater diversity will require not only new talent, but retaining the women already in the sector: “By their very nature construction projects are deadline-driven, which is often not conductive to a great work/life balance for all professionals. Building more flexibility into working times, locations and support may help all professionals to remain in construction and become advocates for the industry.
“Many children look to their parents for work ethic, and if they see their parents, tired, exhausted and working all the time this is not a great image to provide to the potential next generation of construction professionals.”
A bright future
Rachael and Sarah want to see the industry continue to evolve over the coming years. Rachael wants to see “more research into the materials used in construction to support a cleaner and sustainable living environment for future generations.” For Sarah, investing more focus on planning, designing and building all types of structures will be critical, “as we spend too much money and time doing rework.”
There’s a long way to go, but as women in construction continue to achieve great things, the industry will keep progressing towards a bright future.
Read more insights from women in construction around the world.