Women in Construction

9th November 2017

When looking for inspiration for blogs to create – we thought about all the various projects we’ve worked on and the stories we wanted to tell – and realised there was one group in the construction industry who don’t get their voices heard very often; women.

With women accounting for just 10% of the entire industry workforce (including designers, quantity surveyors and administrative roles) and only 1% of workers on site, there’s no question that women are under-represented in construction. Moreover, with UCATT research stating that over half of female construction workers are treated worse than their male counterparts, conditions on the job seem pretty unfavourable to female workers.

Women make up over 26% of the workforce within the Wernick Group. Although Wernick isn’t a construction company in the traditional sense, a lot of our work takes places in the construction environment, and our employees hold many similar roles to those found in construction; from plumbers and joiners to site and contracts managers. Bearing these facts in mind we set out to ask the female employees at Wernick about their experiences working within an industry- and in a company- with a male dominated workforce.

One of the places women are most clearly in the minority is on the tools. Stacey Robson is an Electrician at Wickford Hire Depot, and the only woman in the Wickford yard.  Stacey is quite used to being the only one – since she began training as an electrician (some 14 years ago) she has been the only female on her course, or at work. Stacey has been at Wernick for 3 years and has thankfully never felt singled out or treated differently because of her gender; “I have lots of banter with the lads in the yard – they treat me as one of the guys.”

Claire Blight, Quality Manager to a 100% male factory at Wernick Buildings South Wales, feels the same. “The boys in the factory are generally very respectful. I think sometimes they hold back a bit when speaking to a woman, but I don’t find that particularly derogatory or hurtful – I think it’s a way of showing respect.”

But it’s not just in the factories that women are substantially out-numbered.  On-site, where 99% of the construction industry’s workforce is male, consideration of the needs of female staff can be low on the list of site priorities. For example, PPE is predominantly made in male sizes, making it difficult for female workers to find something that fits that comfortably.

Claire, who often makes site visits, explains; “When visiting sites I frequently struggle to find appropriate PPE. Often, the only equipment available is in male sizes.  While this might not be a threat to health and safety; wearing a coat that’s too big or having sleeves that are far too long, can make doing practical work more difficult for women on site.” 

Emma Paton, Divisional Manager of Wernick Buildings, Plymouth, often finds basic site necessities such as toilets are sub-standard. “Site facilities for women can be disgraceful. Ladies toilets are often used as store-rooms on all male sites. So when a woman visits she’ll often find it’s too full to use. That’s not a very welcoming experience.”

And because it’s so unusual to see a woman on a construction site, those who do visit frequently tend to be under-estimated or patronised. Emma told us; “People will insist you don’t understand what’s going on. On every single site I visit people ask ‘Ooooh, have they let you out the office for a day, to see what the sites like?’ and they are visibly shocked when I tell them I’m running the show.”

But it’s not just construction sites that can feel unwelcoming to female workers; according to Ranstad 74% of women in the construction environment have experienced workplace discrimination, a figure inclusive of office based staff.

Designer and Estimator at Wernick Refurbished Buildings, Kate Webster, gave us an example of prejudice she experienced early in her career; when she felt undermined by the behaviour of one of her first managers. “He used to go through every single document I worked on. He’d make me sit there as he went over everything with a fine tooth-comb, looking for tiny mistakes. He wouldn’t have done that to any of the men in the office. But, in a way, I’m almost thankful to him now, because it’s made me very meticulous.”

Joanne Elwell, Depot Manager at Widnes for Wernick Hire, experienced similar issues when she was starting out in the industry. “I remember speaking to fitters in the yard and someone saying ‘go get someone who knows what they’re doing’. It hurt – but it was good motivation to make sure I pushed myself to know everything I could.”

While not everyone would be able to see the positives in these circumstances; thankfully Kate and Joanne were able to. So does it take a special kind of woman to work in the construction environment.

Joanne says yes, and no; “I think women are well suited to this industry – we tend to be a bit more thorough than the men- so as long as you don’t take offence easily, this can be an amazing industry for a woman to work in.”

Electrician Stacey feels the same; “When you work in a male dominated environment you do have to develop slightly thicker skin, but for me, it’s a case of; I chose this job-I just have to get on with it.”

So what’s to be done about all of this? How do we encourage more women into the industry?  And how do we make sure the construction environment feels accessible and welcoming to female workers? In a situation where the industry desperately needs more workers; companies can’t afford to alienate essentially half of the population.

Emma Paton thinks the issue can be solved by more sympathetic managers, and flexible working hours;

“Construction can be such a brilliant career path for a woman, but until we make sites friendlier and working time more flexible, I think a lot of women will still be turned off.  Before I moved to Wernick I remember working on a site where I was managing a team of 7. I fell pregnant during the project, and my situation very quickly became apparent to my supervisors. Soon after I was told a man would be taking over my role. I felt very pushed out and a bit worthless. When I came to Wernick it couldn’t have been more different. I joined part-time so that I could fit child-care around my work. When I wanted to return to full time work I could. “

According to the CITB 76% of UK construction companies believe increased promotion of the industry in schools would improve opportunities for women in construction. Initiatives like the Considerate Constructors Scheme, of which Wernick Hire is a Registered Supplier; encourage companies to employ more women.  As part of the Scheme’s efforts to improve the image of the industry, they often send their female mascot, Honour Goodsite, to schools to teach young girls about the possibilities of a career in construction.

It’s an initiative many schools will be glad to see; Emma Paton, recalls numerous instances of being asked to speak at schools about her career; “I get teachers asking me to talk to girls about careers in construction. They don’t often get the opportunity to hear about it from a woman who’s worked in the sector. I really enjoy the opportunity to tell them what a fulfilling and exciting career it can be. And working at Wernick, where I feel supported, I feel confident in telling the girls that they won’t be held back by their gender.”

In 2005, an overwhelming 79% of women in the construction sector reported their companies were doing nothing special to attract female workers. In 2015, this figure had dropped to 29% indicating a significant, positive change. Companies working to have their sites certified by Considerate Constructors for example need to supply adequate toilet facilities for female operatives that are fit for purpose – and not used as storage spaces.

In order to retain female staff, companies need to support their female workforce; not just by supporting them in taking maternity leave, but by supporting their ambitions in the work place. Both Claire and Stacey were supported through qualifications by Wernick. Claire achieved Quality Management Systems Lead Auditor and Environmental Management Systems Lead Auditor qualifications. Stacey has been awarded her NVQ Level 3 and Goldcard. Both felt encouraged in their learning; with Stacey commenting; “it gave me a lot of confidence knowing that the people here had faith I could do it.”

But it’s not just about management encouraging female workers to improve themselves from a managerial level. A workplace culture needs to be created where women are supported by their peers.

Kate Webster has experienced this first hand at Wernick Refurbished Buildings. I‘m very fortunate in working with two gentlemen; our Foreman Jock and Trevor, the Technical Manager, who are always encouraging me to learn more. Whenever I ask Jock a question his response is “Get your boots on” and he takes me into the yard and shows me; I learn everything first hand. Trevor is always supporting my learning. When we first introduced the CAD system, he drove all the way to York to teach me how it worked. He’s been a mentor to me ever since.”

Finally, and most importantly, women need more representation in construction. Four out of five UK construction companies think a lack of female role models is a reason for few women in the industry; and the female workers at Wernick seem to be in agreement.

Claire told us; “I think that having more women employed in construction means more women are likely to join the industry. I think that’s true whether it’s in senior roles or on the factory floor. Seeing other female faces makes the environment seem less intimidating and more welcoming to women who are thinking of working in this industry.”   

Electrician Stacey agrees; “Girls need to know there are other girls out there who can do it, and that they can do it too.”