Building barriers broken down

28th November 2003 at 00:00
As the construction industry booms women are being targeted as recruits. Rosie Waterhouse reports

Most women, at some time in their lives, will have walked past a building site and endured wolf whistles and cat calls from the workers.

It might explain why the construction industry is not the obvious choice of employment for the most young women contemplating their future career.

Now a new campaign has been launched by a national organisation called Women's Education in Building (WEB), to encourage more females to enter the construction industry, probably the largest untapped source of potential jobs for women - and men - today.

The statistics speak for themselves (see panel). Of the 2 million people employed by the construction industry in the UK, only 194,000 - around 9 per cent - are women. And of these, just 15,000 - or 1 per cent - work in trades and crafts, while 10 per cent are in professional occupations such as design, engineering and management. The overwhelming majority - 84 per cent - are in secretarial posts.

Despite greater awareness of equal opportunities for women, the tiny proportion in the industry has remained relatively static in recent years.

But all this could change, because of a nationwide skills shortage and a building boom. According to the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), the industry will need to recruit around 380,000 new workers by December 2006, the majority to replace an ageing workforce and around 55,000 to meet growing demand.

Women and ethnic minorities are also being targeted in another UK-wide initiative called Step into Construction.

It is run by the CITB, working with colleges and universities, to link trainees with employers, initially for work experience but ideally eventually for paid employment.

The opportunities range across the spectrum from professional jobs - including engineers, architects, consultants, managers and designers - to technical posts and site supervision to trades such as bricklaying, carpentry and joinery, plastering, painting and decorating, plumbing, electrics, welding and vehicle mechanics.

So why are there so few women in construction? According to Miranda Seymour-Smith, chief executive of Women's Education in Building, the main reason is stereotyping. "It's one of the classic areas where the traditional gender roles are quite clear and people think women can't do manual labour. It's considered men's work. Men assume women will be worried about their hair and their nails".

Lisa Borah, 27, from Battersea in south London, originally fell into the gender trap and after leaving school took various courses to train as a secretary and receptionist. Although well paid, with jobs in the City and the West End, she was bored and dissatisfied.

She discovered a new vocation when she helped family and friends to decorate their homes and decided to train as a painter and decorator. With help from a WEB project called Building Work for Women and a pound;500 grant to buy equipment and tools, Lisa recently got a job with Durkan Limited, which specialises in public-sector housing refurbishment projects, earning pound;70 a day.

She couldn't be happier. "I get great satisfaction from the work and the days fly by," she said. "When I worked in an office I would look at the clock every two minutes and it wasn't moving." She also prefers the company. "When there are a lot of women in an office you get a lot of bitchiness and backstabbing, but when you're working with men they just want to have a laugh."

Lisa says she has not encountered wolf whistles, crude comments or other overtly sexist attitudes from the men. "If you can handle the male environment and give as good as you get you're OK. I just get on with the job."

Lisa also thinks many of the customers prefer a woman working in their home. "I think women are a lot neater and tidier and we clear up after ourselves," she said.

Her boss Paul McCrae, Durkan's community liason officer and head of training, agrees. "We have employed about 10 women full time through training programmes. We have always found them to be conscientious and work to a very high standard.

"When we work with residents in occupation in refurbishment work we find women make them very much at ease. They do the work cleanly and precisely."

Asked whether having women working on site caused problems, McCrae said: "Things go very smoothly. We operate a zero tolerance policy for sexist and racist behaviour."

Barriers to women working in the traditionally male world of engineering and construction are slowly being broken down through outreach programmes in schools and colleges, and partnerships with employers being run by numerous organisations around the country.

One of the most proactive is the JIVE (Joint Intervention) Partnership of 11 organisations, including Sheffield Hallam University, Bradford College, the Equal Opportunities Commission, Women's Education in Building and the Women's Training Network together with similar groups across Europe.

The aim, according to Diane Ives from Bradford College, "is to tackle the multiple barriers women face by creating a culture and attitude change in the recruitment and employment cycle and also to inspire women and girls to consider these careers through mentoring and taster sessions."

For those women who successfully negotiate the obstacles, a career in construction and trades has positive advantages, according to Caroline Armstrong, information resources manager of London-based Women and Manual Trades, an organisation which works with employers and trainers and helps women into construction jobs.

"These can include control over your own work and comparatively better wages than in similar jobs," she said. "Working in the construction trade can provide a good income, often a high level of independence and tremendous job satisfaction."


Women constitute 51 per cent of the population and form 44 per cent of the workforce. The construction industry employs just over 2 million people in the UK.

Of the total industry workforce, around 9 per cent or almost 194,000 are women. Of these just 15,000 or 1 per cent work in trades and crafts, 10 per cent in professional occupations such as design and management, 84 per cent are in secretarial posts, 2 per cent are sole traders and 4 per cent are in micro enterprises employing between one and 10 people. These figures have remained relatively static for the past few years.

Women make up 3 per cent of all trainees entering craft and technical construction courses. The number of women studying for construction degrees in subjects such as engineering and architecture is steadily increasing but they still represent no more than 20 per cent of construction undergraduates.

Around 380,000 recruits will be needed by December 2006, the majority to replace an ageing workforce and around 55,000 to meet growing demand.

Source: Construction Industry Training Board.

Source: Options Employment Ltd Trade Survey audited by NOP. *Ground workers dig foundations, lay tarmac or paving Note: There is no breakdown of rates for men and women in the construction industry but on average, across all sectors of employment, women earn 18.8 per cent less than men.

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