The current skills shortage across the built environment and building control has left the industry crying out for new talent. There is a real opportunity to fill this gap with women, says Jane Keely, director at Assent Building Control
It is no secret that the construction sector has been in the midst of an increasing skills crisis for a number of years. It’s been a growing concern for companies as the industry faces an ageing workforce, at the same time as it struggles to shake negative and outdated stereotypes. The good news is that this is not an insurmountable situation. It’s one that, if the sector works collectively, we can begin to rectify. When it comes to filling the skills gap, there is a valuable and almost untapped pool of talent that we are missing out on.
According to 2019 figures, published by GMB, women make up just 12.5% of the construction workforce. This is despite there being an almost 50:50 split between men and women across the UK workforce as a whole. The reality is that we need women in this industry and it’s not just about the numbers. Its about the skills and diverse thinking they have to offer too. The pursuit for the female workforce lies in both attracting young new talent and retaining women already in the sector by prolonging their careers.
Why the industry is a good fit for women
As someone who has worked in the industry, specifically in building control, for three decades, I feel I can speak with authority when I say there is so much that this sector has to offer to women. The role of someone in building control is multi-layered and it involves interacting with a wide range of people, ongoing learning and knowledge sharing and ultimately creating a positive impact on society.
There is space for much more than the traditionally perceived, masculine qualities in the building regulations sector and the wider industry. While assertiveness, leadership and competitiveness have their place within the industry, equally so does empathy, collaboration and intuition. And while I’m well aware that men and women tend to possess a mixture of all of these skills, I think young women and girls considering a career in construction may find reassurance that all can be used and built on in somewhat equal measure.
Changing gender stereotypes
So, why aren’t women attracted to careers in the built environment? We see campaigns each year that sound a rallying cry from industry to women across the UK, asking them to seize the opportunities that construction has to offer.
But it’s just not that simple. There are a few roadblocks that the sector has to overcome in order to tap into this talent pool. The first is that gender stereotypes tend to prevent young girls from ever considering a career in construction. The codes and messages that shape the outlook of young women and girls can temper their career ambitions before they even leave school. And if we are not exposed to the possibility of this type of career, it means going against the grain to find it. Something that doesn’t come easily.
There is also the barrier of misconceptions made about the construction industry. Mistaken beliefs that it’s an old boys club, with outdated processes, a wolf-whistling workforce and limited opportunities, can stop women from feeling truly welcome. Based on first-hand experience, I can say with confidence that this perception does not align with reality.
From the beginning of my career, I’ve been warmly welcomed and supported into the industry. During my time as chair of the Institute of Building control, now part of the RICS, I always felt that I was supported and encouraged. And regularly being the only woman in the room, the support of the male building control officers, above and beside me, has always been present.
My experience has led me to believe that there is definitely positive discrimination within our sector, to counter its male-dominated culture. I know that many women would be pleasantly surprised upon pursuing their careers in a sector that holds such strong misconceptions.
A collective solution
There is a collective solution to these two issues and it’s something that we all need to work on. While it does seem a bit of a chicken and egg situation, we must show the fantastic opportunities available to those who enter our sector. In order to do this, we need to showcase the women that we have working in these roles already.
We know that women are much more likely to be inspired to take the first step on a career ladder if they can see someone that looks like them at the top of it. And by giving these women a platform, we can begin to dismantle gender stereotypes. Seeing really is believing!
When it comes to attracting the next generation of AI’s, apprenticeships offer a fantastic vehicle from school to the workplace. By allowing students to learn on the job, it gives them a great idea of what to expect.
For women, the idea of visiting a construction site could feel a little daunting, but by getting stuck in straight out of school, students can build their confidence and experience for themselves that more often than not, they will be working with welcoming and friendly people.
Maintaining career progression
The third issue comes further down the career path, at which point many women have begun to establish a career but suddenly have to put it on hold in order to start a family or see to other caring responsibilities. This is something that I have directly experienced.
I began my Building Control career in local authority, a role in which I found myself thriving. But when I became pregnant with my daughter, I had to move to a lower-level role at a private company in order to juggle childcare and work. This is not something unique and I know that there will be many women out there that have had to do the same. And spinning the plates of parent and professional can begin to take its toll. That’s why we see so many women leave the industry, even after they’ve established fantastic careers.
Creating a culture of inclusion
This is where it’s not just about showcasing the incredible talent that women bring to the built environment, it’s also about nurturing and valuing them too. I doubt that any woman wishes to make the choice between her career and her family, but sadly it’s something that many of us are faced with. But women are much more likely to return to a workplace in which they feel valued. And this value comes in the form of actions, not just words.
There are a number of things that employers in our sector can do to retain female staff after maternity leave. The first is to approach it as a brief interlude and not a disruption to the company. Offering support through a phased return to work, check-ins over video call (to the employees’ discretion) and mentoring programmes for returning staff can help them to feel up to speed and stop them from feeling overwhelmed.
It’s all about adjusting the company culture into one that is more inclusive. And believe me, this has financial pay-off for the company as they won’t have to spend time and resources finding a replacement.
It is down to everyone in the industry to showcase the plethora of benefits on offer to women and to value and nurture our existing talent. And we need to act fast, as the skills gap is continuing to widen. It’s a scary prospect to think about the dwindling workforce in almost all pockets of the built environment, but we need to use that fear to motivate ourselves to do better, work harder and create the sea-change needed to inject new blood into our industry.