In the 2016 Construction Manager of the Year Awards, there was not a single entry from a woman. It would seem to suggest the cause of equality in construction is moving backwards. If so, what can the industry do to prevent this? James Kenny reports.
Where are all the women, then? It’s a depressing but obvious thing to ask when all the major contractors gather in London to celebrate the herculean efforts of their construction top guns – and all of them are men. Despite efforts by the CIOB to ensure women get their chance in the spotlight, the 2016 Construction Manager of the Year Awards (CMYA) has no females on the shortlist.
Only 10% of the construction industry is female – including fields such as design and quantity surveying – so you wouldn’t necessarily expect women to dominate the event. But, despite numerous initiatives, the state of affairs seems to be one of regression. In the past there have been female winners. But this year not only was there not a single female finalist, there was not even a single female entrant.
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This prompts the question of why the job of running a construction site seems such a taboo for women? What does the industry need to do to encourage and promote female construction managers? And for those already in the industry, how can they be better recognised?
According to Chrissi McCarthy, MCIOB and managing director at Construction Equality, the reason many women don’t get recognised for such awards is they often are reluctant to be in the spotlight and be put forward.
She explains: “I’ve spoken to women who have won awards at CMYA in the past and often the first thing they say is ‘I was quite hesitant to be put forward for this – I wouldn’t do this off my own back’ or that they are really surprised. They shouldn’t be surprised; they have the knowledge and talent. Women tend to talk about ‘we’ more than ‘I’, so this is often the case when there are chances to be recognised.”
This view is echoed by other female members within the industry. Nicola Markall MCIOB, quality and compliance manager at Carillion Construction, has been in the sector for a number of years and says when it comes to awards she would be disinclined to take individual credit. “In my case I wouldn’t want to take credit. You don’t deliver projects on your own but as part of a team,” she says.
Barriers to success
When it comes to being a construction manager and actually working on site, it is estimated that 99% of workers are men. The UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in Europe and only 14% of entrants to engineering and technology first degree courses are women.
Part of the problem is sexism; research by UCATT shows that more than half of female construction workers said they were treated worse than men because of their gender. One woman, who has worked as a site manager since the mid-1990s, says sexism is still rife within the industry, despite initiatives to combat it.
“Unfortunately, it’s the upper management where the problem still is. White males, over 50,” she says. “I’ve been in the industry for many years, but have had a difficult time, constantly having to prove myself, or been undermined. I’ve had directors shout at me. Perhaps they see me as a threat, but all I want to do is surround myself with people better then me so we can all excel on a project.”
CMYA’s women medallists
Sarah Morton of BAM In 2008, became only the second woman to win a CMYA category medal – the honour first went to Betissa Ryan of Bovis LendLease in 2003. Morton’s project, phase 3 of Lancaster University’s Environment Centre, presented a series of complex challenges, and was her first project manager appointment.
Julia Howard MCIOB, formerly of Wates, was the silver winner in her category in 2013 for the Royal Hill School in Greenwich, south London, the refurbishment of a Victorian school building plus a new extension.
Leanne Broderick of John Sisk & Son was the most recent winner, securing a silver category medal for phase 2 of the Rathbone Market apartments in Canning Town in 2015.
Sexism isn’t the only issue. Issues of time and work balance are a key factor, particularly for those already working and as their career and life progresses.
Out of those women in construction who take a career break to have children, only around one-third return to the industry. These numbers are quite worrying, but also don’t address the issue that if women do return after a career break, many take a different role in order to better suit their changed lifestyle.
“Currently the industry is too focused on recruitment – retention should be the main issue,” says McCarthy. “If women come back to work in the industry, they shouldn’t have to take project community manager jobs or other such positions just so they have sensible hours.”
Paul Payne, managing director of specialist construction and rail recruiter One Way, also believes retention is a factor that needs to be addressed.
“While getting more women into construction remains a challenge that many industry spokespeople are vocal about, few discuss how to retain these individuals once they are on board,” he says. “Thankfully, times have changed and we’re now seeing a healthier pipeline of female talent moving into the sector compared to recent years. However, all of this hard work could go to waste if employers don’t think about the impact of the working culture that they’re fostering.”
Payne says the problem this creates is a churn of female talent that limits the number of women in management positions. “What we need to see now is a greater number of employers investing just as much effort into creating a working – and managing – environment that is as supportive of the female talent they have been able to bring into the firm as they would be in attracting these individuals in the first place,” he adds.
That’s not to say that the industry is ignoring the problem – many companies and bodies are actively trying to address the imbalance in the industry and spearheading initiatives to change things.
The CIOB has a number of activities planned this year to support a more diverse industry, among them setting up specific networking groups and professional development networks to encourage greater participation and retention of women and other under-represented communities in the industry.
Ahead of the game in this respect is the BRE, with its BRE Women’s Network. Launched in 2013, it aims to inspire women to join and remain in the construction and property sectors by showcasing the positive contribution that so many are making across the sector.
Thames Tideway Tunnel is another progressive organisation – the first outside the financial sector to launch a “returnship” programme, aimed at helping women professionals back into work after a career break.
Launched in April 2015, all seven professionals who took part in the scheme were offered positions with Thames Tideway Tunnel after they completed the programme, which included opportunities in business planning, legal, stakeholder engagement, operations management, asset management and financial modelling.
At the time, Rachel Tomkins, who took up the role of operations manager after completing the returnship, said: “The past 12 weeks have provided me with an invaluable opportunity to prove myself, in the workplace, after a considerable career break. With Thames Tideway Tunnel and Women Returners, we’ve been offered great mentoring support and advice to successfully make the transition back to full time work.”
"Currently the industry is too focused on recruitment – retention should be the main issue. If women come back to work in the industry, they shouldn’t have to take project community manager jobs or other such positions just so they have sensible hours."
Chrissi McCarthy MCIOB, Constructing Equality
With programmes such as these in place and an active drive by companies to recruit women to the sector, one issue that persists is around the elevation of women to prime positions in companies.
Monika Slowikowska, as the founder of Golden Houses Developments, a UK-based construction business that specialises in high-end residential projects, bucks the trend.
Slowikowska believes that in order for more women construction managers to enter the business, it all goes back to education. “For me I think it’s about communication and interaction. Young women should be approached at a young age, in schools and elsewhere and told about a career in the industry,” Slowikowska says.
Dan Forbes-Pepitone, capability and talent director at Skanska, also points the finger at education, saying: “Lack of knowledge about different roles in construction is where a lot of the problems lie.”
He adds: “We are seeing greater diversity in the built environment, but more so in an increase in engineers than actual construction managers. Unfortunately, there is still that perception about being on site.”
Skanska has been particularly prominent among construction companies in its aim to not only encourage women into the sector, but also retain them. This year it has partnered with Women Returners to welcome talented professionals, both male and female, who have taken a voluntary career break of two years or more for a 12-week paid return to work programme.
Based in London and surrounding areas and in Cambridgeshire, the scheme is set to start on 26 September, with the view to roles becoming permanent at the end of the period.
Forbes-Pepitone has identified three main areas that he believes the industry needs to focus on: “Number one, we have to keep trying to change perception – reaching out to schools, teachers, guidance counsellors, parents. It is all those things and making women aware about the wider construction industry, there are so many different areas.
“Number two, we have to get more flexible and practical about working on site. Facilities have to be acceptable and female friendly as standard.”
His third and final point is that the construction industry needs to think more widely about the output of a job. “Looking at roles, what does it need? Is it a leadership role, rather then construction? You might have someone with, say,10 years’ road experience, but does that make them the right person? Do they have leadership skills elsewhere? Women and others who might not necessarily see themselves in certain roles should be encouraged to apply.”
A better future?
Jessica Mack, trainee site manager at Hill, talks about her experiences
Being a site manager is a fantastic job – you’re planning resources, co-ordinating issues on site, problem solving, looking after health and safety. There’s lots of variety too and no day is ever the same. I was due to start a law degree until I decided that I actually wanted to get a degree while working and gain experience.
Hill’s management trainee programme gives you lots of responsibility, a good salary and perks like a company car once you’ve reached a certain level. There’s no reason why construction shouldn’t be a very attractive career to more young women.
“It can be daunting when you first arrive at a construction site, where there are large groups of male workers but very few women. However once you get to know the team personally it’s a lot less intimidating. As female site workers are relatively rare, there’s still work to be done in terms of changing attitudes – delivery drivers coming to site often assume I’m a receptionist, for example.
“I also think it’s important to change perceptions of construction. The main problem is that there are currently very few female role models, and young women aren’t aware of the opportunities available in construction when they finish school. I’m occasionally at careers events promoting the scheme, and recently a female student came and spoke to me to get more information about the opportunities when otherwise she would not have given a career in construction consideration.
“She’s since done two weeks of work experience at Hill and is now set to join our Trainee Scheme in September. Where women are equipped with information about the sector and the roles available, and can see there are other women already working in construction and making a success of it, they’re much more likely to give construction a chance and jump in.
“Like many other jobs, there are ups and downs when it comes to being a female site manager, but there are definitely many more ups! I’m currently three years into a five-year programme, and really looking forward to gaining more responsibility and managing my own sites.”