Home » “There is nothing a woman can’t do”

“There is nothing a woman can’t do”

by Mark Cantrell
PCL outlines strategies to grow female representation in construction

Traditionally, women were seen as the home-makers, well these women are building homes from the ground up as construction professionals, writes Mark Cantrell. They embody the ethos behind Women in Construction Week

In this day and age, the idea that there are jobs for the boys, and roles for the girls, is surely a somewhat old fashioned outlook. Certainly, it ought to be. Still, it persists; a notion that places construction and related industries at the forefront of change.

The construction sector remains heavily male dominated; older male dominated at that, which leaves it facing a stark demographic problem within itself, as time takes its toll and the workforce ages into retirement.

But women are stepping up – and have been for some time – to take their place among the men and diversify the industry; at the same time doing their bit to make construction more reflective of the society in which it operates.

The latest Women in Construction Week is drawing to a close, and fittingly today is International Women’s Day. The annual celebration exists to focus the mind, as it were; to applaud the gains made, highlight the road yet to travel, and reach hearts and minds.

It’s about educating and inspiring women and young girls, in particular, to demonstrate that they have a rightful place forging the fabric of our built environment.

“Diversity as a whole makes businesses stronger and creates an inclusive environment which encourages us all to do and work better together,” said Marlena Przewuska, a planning and pre-construction manager with Lovell.

“We need to educate young women about the variety of jobs available to them within this sector from the early school days, and show them that there are so many pathways for them into construction.”

Lauren Banner, a social value coordinator with Fusion21, added: “I want girls and women to know there’s no trade or role off-limits to us. The stigma persists, but we need to start early, encouraging interest and confidence from primary school age upwards.”

Education matters

This isn’t just about doing the right thing, of course; not only that. There’s a sound business case to be had in drawing on the talents and capabilities of a wider pool of candidates. Not just that, but widening the outlook and perspectives around the table, as much as on the ground, helps make problems and challenges that much more, well, solvable.

A point made by Anna Cook-Bacon; as Flagship Homes’ head of partnerships, one of the East of England region’s top women in construction. More female builders would certainly change the dynamic of worksites and boost innovation, she argues.

“It would bring new ideas and new perspectives,” she said. “A more diverse workforce would mean a different way of communicating with each other – it would change the dynamic of a building site.

“Women often have different views to men, and I think it’s good to have that difference of opinion. And we don’t have an influx of people coming onto worksites to replace those who are retiring, so now is a key time to get more women involved.”

Education is a key mechanism for encouraging more women into the industry, Cook-Bacon believes. This, and changing the perception that trades careers are just for men.

Visibility, matters too. As a child, she says she had never thought about going into construction because she never saw any women in the field.

A stint doing secretarial work at her grandfather’s construction firm, followed by an apprenticeship at Drayton-based RG Carter construction, however, served to set her on the path to becoming a quantity surveyor – estimating costs, co-ordinating teams, and managing project timelines. Now she leads a delivery team that oversees the construction of hundreds of homes a year.

The sector pays well, she adds, and there are plenty of opportunities for travel, career development and entrepreneurship.

“I love being in this industry,” she said. “It’s ever-changing and there are so many different elements you can be involved in, from architecture and engineering to groundworkers, plumbers and electricians. I drive past sites I was involved in 17 years ago and point them out to my children. You’re building something for the future, and leaving a legacy to be proud of.”

Women in Constructon Week 2024
Anna Cook-Bacon, head of partnerships, Flagship Homes

Natalie King, operations director and vice principal at AccXel Construction School, concurs that education is important, saying that “knowledge is power.”

“There are hundreds of roles in the industry, an ever-growing sector, and yet, in 2024, we still see a mere 14% of females in senior construction and management roles, and just 3% in trades,” she added.

“There are many hurdles to entering the industry, including unconscious bias, misconception, and fear of isolation; but the best way to combat these hurdles is education.

“Give women the choice and confidence to enter our wonderful industry by giving them information and knowledge about it, bombard them with realities and opportunities and routes to careers, and this process must start at an early age.

“As females running a construction school, surrounded by a predominantly female team, we are advocates and practitioners of ‘see it, be it’. There is nothing a woman can’t do; even more so in construction.”

The situation is shifting; women are certainly a more noticeable presence within the industry nowadays, though it is fair to say, perhaps, that this been realised from a low base. Still, as anyone in construction knows, a job doesn’t get done until it’s started.

According to the Office for National Statistics, in April to June 2023, women made up around 15.8% of the UK construction sector’s workforce, up 1.2% on the previous quarter. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the figure stood at 12.6%

Women continue to make incremental gains, but it is slow going, and there is clearly more work to be done to encourage more gender parity.

Show, don’t tell

Role models are undoubtedly essential in challenging stereotypes, and offering living, breathing testaments to the power of hard work and determination; more pertinently, evidence that women can – and do – succeed in building construction careers. As fiction writers might say, show; don’t tell.

Millie Edwards is a case in point. She is a development project manager with housing group, Riverside. She regularly oversees construction projects costing in excess of £40m; she hopes her story will inspire more women to step into the construction industry.

Edwards has only worked in construction for the last eight years; she started her career in housing management, but she says she hasn’t looked back.

Womein in Construction Week 2024
Marlena Przewuska, planning and pre-construction manager, Lovell

“I had no qualifications in construction or development when Riverside first asked me to step up into a temporary role managing a 170-home project,” she said. “It was a steep learning curve and very different to what I’d done previously, but I was supported along the way to develop technical knowledge and, after my success, was offered the chance to permanently join the development team.”

Ever since, Edwards has been involved in the delivery of thousands of affordable homes spanning multiple development projects across the country, including extra care apartments. Although figures show increases in women working in construction, she feels the story feels quite different on the ground.

“I’ve worked in the housing industry for 18 years and while I’ve definitely seen a slow and gradual rise in the number of women working in construction, there’s still a lot of work to be done to tackle the gender imbalance,” she added.

With a focus on upskilling herself and progressing in her construction career, Edwards has recently graduated with a First Class (Hons) degree in Construction Management. The gender imbalance she has witnessed has been stark, she points out.

During her construction management apprenticeship, she says she was only one of two women in a class of 30. It was the same for her degree course, albeit the group was smaller, with 12 people.

“At Riverside, across our development team, most of us are female, though are mainly sitting in management roles rather than trade positions,” Edwards said. “Of course it is amazing to hear of rises within the industry, and more so to see women in leadership, but it’s especially far off being a 50/50 split of men and women when it comes to skilled tradespeople working predominantly on building sites.

“I’m always in awe when I see a female in a trade role because you sadly still don’t come across them as often as you’d hope.”

However, she is hopeful for the figures to continue growing, so more women can be a part of bringing affordable homes and properties to the communities where the organisation works.

“I think there is more to be done around actively seeking different demographics, and promoting the opportunities available within the industry earlier,” she said, “to help young girls and women realise there is more they could achieve and be a part of.

“These things won’t just come naturally. Using social media and going into schools would be especially useful so teenagers can learn what’s out there, and know sooner that the likes of construction and trade work is not solely for men.”

The development project manager is also calling for more women across the industry to step up as role models by sharing their successes, stories, and experiences; break persisting stereotypes, as much as raise awareness of the possibilities.

“Sadly women think they’re not big or strong enough to work in construction, so it’s about eliminating that belief, and ensuring women recognise the value in them being part of the field as a whole,” she said. There’s so much more to construction than just seeing to the heavy lifting on a development site; there’s many other roles that they could excel in.

“When I first started, I felt like a fish out of water going onto a construction site in PPE. I’ve fortunately never experienced purposeful discrimination due to my gender, but I know from conversations across the sector there’s an underlying feeling that women have to prove themselves, and their technical knowledge, more than their male peers before they fully feel respected on site.

“That being said, attitudes towards women working in construction has certainly grown and improved over the years, and it’s much more of a welcoming environment.

“So I’d personally recommend other people – especially women – to consider a career in construction because it’s very rewarding and for me, being able to achieve within such a male dominated industry feels like a big achievement.”

Have a care

Women may be making progress in construction, but that’s not to say it’s all plain sailing.

Women in Construction Week 2024
Lauren Banner, social value coordinator, Fusion21

As one Women in BIM member – who wished to remain anonymous – said, inflexible workplace practice and culture, or the challenges around childcare, can all be major hurdles. Childcare costs, for instance, can average around £15,000 a year for one child, until the child starts school, she explained, which creates staff retention challenges.

“Keeping a child in full time child care can be expensive and sometimes unaffordable,” she said. “This means that women leave the construction workplace, as there isn’t the flexibility or earning opportunities in place.”

She points out that some of the biggest barriers to encouraging women into construction include stereotypes and biases, lack of representation and industry leading role models. She also cites existing workplace cultures, lack of opportunities for hybrid working, flexibility or job-sharing opportunities, and limited access to leadership training and promotion opportunities.

“To overcome these hurdles, it’s essential to promote diversity and inclusion, provide mentorship and support programmes, promote leadership through training and continue to actively recruit and retain women in these roles,” she said.

“Challenges exist when companies resist having flexible working conditions in place. The reality is when companies promote flexibility this actually allows an individual to feel empowered.

“[This] in turn means that people can work from home and the office, when its suitable to them. It also means that people can log on earlier in the day or later in the evening, which helps reduce stress around caring opportunities or other demands. [It will] also mean that women are actually working longer hours at home and giving more to the company.”

Inevitably, as women progress within the industry, not all experiences are going to be positive; indeed the negative gives fire to the determination of women to make a difference, and deliver change.

Riverside’s Edwards added: “Gender is definitely not a barrier within Riverside, and it certainly shouldn’t be across the construction industry or housing sector.”

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