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Takeover: Deconstructing gender

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Rosa Turner Wood

Fewer than 13% of the construction workforce are women. In the first of an occasional series, Rosa Turner Wood, who has just completed her Part II, takes over some space to consider how we can rebalance our gender-unequal, and aging, workforce

Are we running out of men? Could women be the answer to tackling the UK’s declining construction workforce? Women currently comprise less than 13% of people working in construction in the UK – with only 3% of those in manual trade roles. Most women are project managers and related professions, and even they are still only 24.6% of the workforce. At the same time, the UK is heading into a construction worker shortage. The highest proportion of construction employees are aged between 45 and 59 – moving towards retirement. What would it take to balance up gender inequality?

Rail minister Claire Perry MP meets women working on Crossrail in 2019.
Rail minister Claire Perry MP meets women working on Crossrail in 2019. Credit: Crossrail LTD

Why women aren’t represented

There are many reasons behind women’s low employment rate. Studies such as Meg Munn’s 2014 ‘Building the future: Women in construction’ and the University of Westminster’s 2015 ‘No more softly, softly’ offer data and anecdotal evidence that suggest an unwelcoming culture of sexism and inadequate support put women off entering the profession and sticking to it. Obstacles include high levels of gender-based discrimination, informal recruitment processes which benefit men working in the sector (only 3% of jobs are advertised), and negative perceptions of the physical demands, as well as lack of knowledge, awareness and encouragement around how women could be employed. Munn describes women recruitment processes as far more rigorous than men’s and this is compounded by unsuitable clothing and PPE, lack of training opportunities and even appropriate WCs. Add the traditional need for a mobile workforce and culture of long working hours and it becomes clearer why employment/retainment of women is so poor.

But all this could change. Mark Farmer’s boldly titled 2016 government-commissioned report Modernise or Die provided a compelling argument for the deployment of digital practices and manufacturing within construction – ‘modernise’ or ‘face a future of decline and marginalisation’. Only by harnessing contemporary and sustainable construction technologies would the UK meet housing demand and address emission targets.

Could offsite manufacture be a model for women’s employment?

Offsite manufacturing involves the prefabrication of elements or whole modules in a factory before assembly on site. This might be a volumetric system such as a fully fitted bathroom or kitchen or a closed panellised system like a fully insulated wall complete with fixtures, windows, doors and cladding. Offsite runs counter to traditional onsite construction, contributing to a greater professionalised environment, heightened efficiency, more integrated digitalised systems and technologies as well as more stable working conditions. These are all attributes that could resolve why women are marginalised in construction and could help reduce gender imbalance. Fixed factory locations and hours create more consistent working environments and make it harder to ignore discrimination. In the Construction Management and Economics Journal, Tessa Wright suggests the greater the physical distance between a construction company’s HQ and the building site, the greater the likelihood of harassment because it is easier to ‘ignore formal policies’ that curtail macho culture. Of the 13% of women in construction, 27% are employed offsite.

Hannah Arkell, Studio Arkell. Masters Thesis project 'Plexus' in collaboration with FibR GMBH, Stuttgart.
Hannah Arkell, Studio Arkell. Masters Thesis project 'Plexus' in collaboration with FibR GMBH, Stuttgart. Credit: Hannah Arkell

13% of people working construction in the UK are women

Increased use of robotics

Likewise, robotics in construction could be equally inclusive to women and men. Architect Hannah Arkell, whose master’s thesis ‘Plexus’ developed at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts deployed robotics filament-winding techniques to achieve intricate geometries using natural fibres, explains: ‘Robotic fabrication methods are not hands on/labour intensive so the stereotypical view that a man would be more able is removed.’ Robotics offer stable working and coding environments conducive to learning too, regardless of gender.

However, according to WISE Campaign, the body encouraging women and girls into careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, women account for only 22% of the STEM workforce. This has direct repercussions on our economy and is a missed opportunity, with a report by the Institution of Engineering and Technology revealing that increasing employment of women in STEM professions could contribute an extra £2bn to the UK economy. At the moment there isn’t capacity to use robotics at the rate to meet demand – partly because financiers and insurers do not adequately support companies in the area and the sector does not yet extensively embrace this technology. WISE, Science Grrl, and STEMNET are working to engage young women in the profession through education and mentoring.

Remember however, that homogeneity of the construction sector extends beyond gender imbalance. The industry is tarnished by stories of ethnic, racial and LGBTQ+ discrimination too. Confronting inequality in the construction sector is essential not only because it’s fair and right, but also a means to meet industry needs.

The building of the Womens Workshop Foundation headquarters in 2015 was an opportunity to put ideas into practice.
The building of the Womens Workshop Foundation headquarters in 2015 was an opportunity to put ideas into practice.

Case studies

Robotic technology as a tool to engage young women in STEM subjects

In 2019 Lisa Keller and Isabel John conducted a study of school pupils who were introduced to robotics and surveyed before and after. Before the programme, 20% of girls showed an interest in computer sciences compared with 25% of boys. However, after the session an additional 50% of the girls were interested, compared with a further 25% of boys. Using robotics as a relatively inexpensive educational tool could challenge gender stereotypes by providing a fun environment to practice robotics programming and coding, leading to a more diverse workforce.

Women’s Workshop in Northumbria

In 2015 the Women’s Workshop foundation concluded the construction of its own HQ following a five-year all-women self-build workshop used to educate women in construction and design. The model provided training for participants with no previous experience and allowed women to gain hands-on practice, affirm their skills and envisage a future in the sector. The legacy of this work was validated by several participants who subsequently gained further construction training.

Research into women construction eco-communities

Jenny Pickerill, a self-builder and environmental geography professor at the University of Sheffield, has used empirical data to research discrimination faced by women involved in constructing their own eco-communities in Argentina, Britain, Spain, Thailand and USA. She found evidence of outdated, sexist discourse about women’s physical strength based on assumptions of fragility, despite the fact that the women felt able. Pickerill argues for improving women's visibility within construction, emphasising participation: ‘You need to learn through doing as a man would.’

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