The gender pay gap figures have been published for 2019. It may not surprise you to hear that construction, yet again, is the worst offending sector, with women earning only 76p for each £1 earned by their male colleagues. As more young women consider gender pay gap data in their career strategies, this disparity might add to the list of barriers that prevent women from entering, staying in, and succeeding in construction careers.
The roots of gender bias in construction are as old as the buildings themselves. Historically, women have been denied access to the ‘noble’ professions, such as law, public office, architecture or engineering. Science is rooted in traditions of rationality and objectivity, which were considered by society as being in direct conflict with the idea of traditional femininity. Even in the early part of the twentieth century, women engineers were considered ‘perverse,’ misdirecting their creative energies, threatening the breeding of a ‘third sex!’ In the construction trades, men feared women joining their ranks in case they caused a ‘feminisation’ of their traditionally male craft.
In the 21st century, these ill-informed prejudices are comically outdated…….right?
Current employment data would suggest differently. A brief flick through our industry literature and we will still see women objectified, modelling the latest architectural product, whilst they perform traditional gender roles. Rarely will we see women celebrated as having played a pivotal role in industry success (unless it’s about gender disparities, of course).
Today, the barriers that hinder women’s abilities to enter, stay in, progress in, and enjoy construction careers are, in part, a result of historic prejudices. But studies of women’s roles and experiences show that mostly, it is a result of the current social, economic, and cultural situation. Many women have not even considered a career in construction due to a lack of parental role models in the sector, or even discouragement from ill-informed career counsellors. The industry is still perceived to be adversarial and macho, with potential for sexual harassment – no place for a girl.
Statistics show that this perception may actually be accurate, but without an increase in women to balance out the traditional masculine culture, then it will be difficult for the industry to change that perception. Women who do join our industry may experience a conflict between their professional and female identities. Many women perceive that construction is “no place for a girly girl” and find themselves attempting to fit in with a traditional form of masculinity. Many are perceived as not ‘real’ women, but they certainly aren’t men!
Dominance of the masculine culture can even have health and safety repercussions. Women are often required to don unfit for purpose PPE equipment, as well as feeling hesitant to report hazards or injuries, for fear of appearing weak in a culture that values strength and robustness. This may put some women at risk of real harm.
Women also experience barriers to career progression. Employees who bring in new work are usually considered valuable to a company and given opportunities to progress up the career ladder. Yet, many report that securing work often takes place in a traditionally male-centred environment, such as at golf tournaments or rugby matches, where relationships are formed over pint glasses. Gender-coded dialogue and a long hours culture can add to this, preventing women from gaining traction in these important relationship networks.
The long hours culture is widely reported as a problem for women across the construction sector. Women have a greater likelihood of having caring responsibilities outside work and many adopt non-traditional career paths in the industry to suit. This means that they may opt to work more flexibly than their male counterparts. One study suggests that non-traditional approaches to work can be perceived as a ‘feminisation’ of their profession. In workplaces where a blame culture exists, women may struggle to work flexibly, as that culture pressures individuals to work harder and longer, in order to avoid apportionment of blame should it arise.
These barriers are recognised by policy makers. Despite decades of initiatives the “burning injustice” (to echo our current Prime Minister) to women in the sector still remains. The pay gap data shows that women engineers experience particular challenges, with wider pay gaps and still huge under-representation. Unsurprisingly, the construction trades have the biggest gaps and have the lowest proportions of women employed.
But research suggests that we shouldn’t get too fixated on the numbers. If equality and diversity policies are to be effective, then studies indicate that it is the social and the cultural aspects of the workplace that will create fairness and equity. Focus needs to be on company values and development of policies that focus on equity, rather than universalism. The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to company policy isn’t working. Difference is a positive attribute. It brings diversity of thinking and an enhanced collective, cognitive performance to a project. But if difference is to be embraced, then company policies need to focus more on equity – putting in place strategies that empower people with diverse needs, empowering them to engage in a way that is appropriate for them. This means reducing cultures of presenteeism, encouraging men to take responsibility for childcare, and accepted alternatives to the traditional ‘race-to-the-top’ career pathways.
In recent decades, the mission to reduce the gendered culture of the construction sector has progressed, but it has only taken baby steps. Meanwhile, the nature of work is changing. The digital revolution has transformed our working practices and enabled time and location independence and flexibility, as well as changes to the way project teams collaborate and interact. In the online world, masculine dominance is weakened. It’s harder to ‘control’ a group and its easier to be heard.
Could the 4th Industrial Revolution be the key to a more gender-equitable culture? If so, women and men in construction would be wise to recognise these opportunities to re-imagine and redefine construction’s image, culture, and practice. Perhaps…just perhaps, once the digital revolution has reached maturity, construction will be a sector that can offer fulfilling, long term, and equitable careers, open to, and supportive of, any gender.
Dr. Jenni Barrett is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire and Director of coLAB, an organisation that offers tailored collaboration and management training for the construction industry. Her academic research focusses on gender equity in the construction industry and skills for project team collaboration in digital environments. Jenni can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.