Portrait of mature architect woman at a construction site. Building, development, teamwork and people concept featured

The Truth Behind Construction and Engineering’s Lack of Women

Portrait of mature architect woman at a construction site. Building, development, teamwork and people concept.Evidence of a gender imbalance in the UK construction industry should come as no surprise to anyone.

Even though the misconception of men dominating the STEM subjects can be disproved through a quick Google search (female students outperform male students), the same articles suggest there are continual obstructions to women participating in subsequent industries.

According to reports, sexism, a lack of role models, and anxiety over career progression prevent women from pursuing a career in construction and engineering. Of course, these are genuine and important factors that must be addressed. However, for Britain in particular, the foundations of the problem lie deep within the sector. After all, other countries like Spain have a relatively equal number of men and women working within this lucrative industry.

Is the UK construction and engineering sector excluding women as a viable workforce, or are people excluding the industry from their prospects as a viable career?

Learning to leave

You may often hear the phrases of depreciation when discussing the lack of females in the construction and engineering sector – “we treat it as a man’s job” or “girls are raised to believe they can’t”.

However, while this may have been the case well over a decade ago, there is no evidence of any gender biases at an education level. Work continues to deconstruct these perceptions, but the suggestion that an entire sector is gender-exclusive is rejected in the classroom.

Evidence suggests that female students recognise engineering as a viable career for them, and see little difference in whether it is suited more for one gender.

Research by EngineeringUK highlighted this perception from 2015 to 2019:

The graphs indicate that girls do not agree with the idea that engineering is just for boys. Across the two charts, data shows an increasing awareness of gender equality. 94% of girls at school leaving age (16–19) in 2019 said they agreed that engineering is suitable for boys and girls. 81% of boys at school leaving age in 2019 agreed too.

The evidence is conclusive, recording that there is no belief system in girls that engineering and construction is not a viable career option. Certainly, the abilities of girls in the educational setting do not pose any barriers to the sector. Therefore, the perception of construction as an appealing career may be the most significant factor in preventing people from entering the industry.

Groups of 11-14-year-old girls and 16-19-year-old girls show a declining aspiration for engineering as a potential career. Clearly, even more must be done to prove that this is a desirable career for aspirational women. The lack of female role models in the construction sector may also contribute to these disappointing results.

However, when compared with boys at similar ages, it’s important to note that they too showed a similar declining interest in the last four years.

Gender stereotypes can certainly contribute to the construction industry as a viable career option, but clearly, girls believe that pursuing engineering as a career is something that they are capable of doing if they desired. EngineeringUK concluded that: “Barriers to pursuing STEM education and engineering careers — those relating to a lack of knowledge of engineering, for example — may be common to both genders and point to the importance of stepping up engagement with all young people.”

Construction and engineering in the UK, it appears, is failing to show that it is a desirable career option to either gender. The consequence of this is more than having a distinct lack of female engineers, the problems within the sector are only emphasised by the continued gender stereotypes of masculine roles.

If not just for women, how is the construction and engineering sector failing to attract everyone?

Why is construction unappealing?

Data suggests that, when compared to Europe, the UK ranks lowest on the representation of women in the construction and engineering sector.

The perception of a prestigious career is the reason, according to civil engineer Jessica Green. She believes that similar occupations, such as architecture, are appreciated more than her misunderstood career. She admits that she “turned [her] nose up at engineering”, after believing the job would create a lifetime of standing “dressed in overalls” and “working in tunnels”.

Green concludes that this is the image that was presented to her in the UK. Even though the career requires years of academia and a large amount of training, she feels that she is denied a prestige that other careers are awarded. People do not want to consider a career without a sense of achievement.

This is the opposite of Spain, where the title of engineer is regarded with the same occupational prestige as that of a doctor or lawyer. It requires six years of work to achieve this title. For this reason, Green believes Spain achieves its impressive equality in her field of work.

Of course, the term “engineer” is broader in the UK. It can represent many people throughout the construction sector from many different levels. This creates an ambiguity into what the role actual is, and what a person may be qualified to do. This unknown contributes to the disappointing representation of talented construction engineers compared to other careers held in high regard, such as doctors or lawyers. The apprehension often creates the perception of overalls and yellow hard hats, though the construction sector relies on many engineers working in office environments or in a digital field.

Building the best solution

The construction and engineering sector must innovate its approach to recruiting in the UK. This appeal must be refreshed for men and women. The evidence shows that female students are approaching the sector with an open mind and with confidence. But they are being let down by an industry that asks people to prove themselves worthy of a promising career, when it is the construction sector that needs to work to prove itself to their prospective employees.

Diane Boon, Director of Commercial Operations at structural steelwork company Cleveland Bridge, states: “To be a woman in engineering — as with everything in life — you need to work hard. But so do the men. Being a woman has neither helped nor hindered my career in this incredible field. What engineering needs to do smarter is raise its profile, make itself more appealing to future generations — it needs to reposition itself.”

The future of UK construction and engineering lies in the hands of the sector’s female leaders. By recognising engineers in this country with the same prestige that other European countries do, we can achieve an appealing and competitive workforce and achieve better gender representation within the industry.


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How can we attract more women to the construction industry?

woman in construction

Kelly Friel, from industrial tool supplier Zoro, tackles the issue of gender diversity in construction, and discusses what we can do to help boost the number of women seeking careers in the industry.

It'll come as no surprise to anyone in construction to hear that it's a remarkably male-dominated sector, with just 11 per cent of all roles being held by women (WISE).

And, that number doesn't even take into account the number of women who work in administrative roles rather than on-site — some sources estimate that up to 99 per cent of all on-site workers are men (Guardian).

When you look at these statistics, it's easy to see why so many women view construction as an exclusive boys' club that isn't for them. As a result of this lack of diversity, many capable and talented women may be missing out on a rewarding career that they may be very well suited for, which is clearly not right.

Additionally, we're currently facing a serious skills shortage in this country, and we urgently need more qualified tradespeople to fill the gap. Encouraging more women into building and construction could help to widen the talent pool and will ensure that we've got enough skilled people to keep the industry afloat.

So, what can be done to help rectify the gender imbalance? In this article, I'll explore a few ideas which could encourage women to choose a career in construction.

Creating a welcoming environment

Many women have serious reservations about the sort of attitudes their colleagues on-site might have about them, and these concerns should be taken seriously. It's not enough to simply expect female builders to 'toughen up' and deal with discrimination or harassment in silence: employers and site managers need to have clear policies about on-site behaviour. They should also make sure that all employees receive adequate training, so they understand what constitutes discrimination, and what sort of behaviour is and isn't appropriate.

Provide the correct equipment and facilities

The battle doesn’t end once a woman is hired: the lack of diversity on construction sites can mean that women's basic needs and rights often aren’t catered to properly. Even essential facilities, like changing rooms and toilets, often aren’t provided, which further encourages the idea that sites are men-only zones. If employers are going to show that they are serious about championing diversity, then they need to reflect this by building facilities for women, even if it’s just a couple of employees.

Additionally, employers mustn't forget about providing suitable work gear. Women are likely to need safety equipment and work wear — such as boots, gloves, hard hats, and hi-vis wear — in different sizes and styles to men, so employers should be ready to offer these, rather than assuming that female workers can simply use styles designed for men. This will help to create a more inclusive culture on site.

Offer training, apprenticeships and mentoring

Many companies are already fully aware that a diverse workforce brings plenty of benefits, and are keen to hire more women. But, there is often only a small pool of qualified female candidates to draw from, which can make hiring tricky.

One solution to this problem is to offer apprenticeships, work experience opportunities, and training schemes to women, as this will give them an opportunity to earn a qualification while they work.  Essentially, this allows employers to nurture female talent from within the company, instead of trying to hire them from an incredibly narrow pool of talent.

Mentoring schemes also offer a great way to achieve this. Having an established female employee as a mentor can make new female recruits feel less alone when they first start work, and it can help new employees learn the ropes faster, increasing the opportunity for progression.

Raising awareness and educating young people

To increase the number of women who hope to pursue a career in construction, we need to make sure that women and girls are aware of the opportunities that are out there from an early age. Although employers and site managers can have an important role to play, there's a lot that educators can do to raise awareness of construction roles, too.

One way to achieve this is to boost the profile of women already working in construction, perhaps by sending female builders into schools and colleges to show young women and girls that it’s not just for men. They can also help to raise awareness of the fact that nowadays, thanks to advancements in technology, lots of roles don’t necessarily involve hard manual labour and so can be done by anyone. Construction firms can also work with educators to offer open days to girls and young women, which can help inspire interest in construction careers.

While the numbers of women in construction roles might be shockingly low, the good news is that there are steps that employers and educators can take to show women that building work has a lot to offer. By working together to raise awareness, and by ensuring that sites are welcoming to women, we can help to close the gender gap in construction.

Kelly FrielAbout the author

Kelly is a Digital Product Manager at online tools and equipment retailer Zoro, which specialises in supplying a wide range of trades and industries. After working for a competitor within the same sector for 16 years, where she worked her way up through the organisation, she moved to Zoro to take on her current role in 2016.


Maria Kaskara, L&Q featured

Inspirational Woman: Maria Kaskara | Graduate Assistant Site Manager, L&Q

 

Maria Kaskara, L&Q

Maria, 26, is passionate about promoting female roles in the construction industry - in fact she wrote her Master’s dissertation on the differences in managerial competencies between male and female project managers, and when not on site she dedicates time to hosting workshops and talks at local London schools encouraging female students to consider working in the field.

In her role working on new housing developments for L&Q, Maria is responsible for managing the construction of new developments from start to finish and loves that she has the opportunity to play a key role in building a brand new home from the ground up.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I am currently working as a Graduate Assistant Site Manager on site at leading property developer L&Q’s new development The Rushgroves in Hendon, as part of L&Q’s graduate scheme.

After completing my Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering in Greece, I moved to London to complete my Master’s in Project and Enterprise Management at UCL, before joining the L&Q Academy for the construction graduate scheme last September.

I have a number of responsibilities across the site, including conducting health and safety checks, keeping site diaries up to date, attending meetings with sub-contractors and dealing with everyday issues and logistics. I like to get involved with “a bit of everything”, and also implement quality checks, to ensure that construction proceeds in accordance with design drawings and specifications.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I wouldn’t say I have ever sat down and planned my career but I have always wanted to work in construction and follow in my father’s footsteps and that’s why I decided to study engineering. My passion for engineering continued through my whole university life, so when I graduated I knew that I wanted to work on construction sites and see everything happening in real life.

Have you faced any particular challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?

Every day can be challenging on a construction site. When you’re working on a development like The Rushgroves with 387 homes, there is so much work taking place and everything changes so quickly. Striking the right balance between time, cost and quality is not an easy job but is key to success, so some days on site can become stressful. However, it is great to be challenged and get the job done. This is what I personally find very rewarding in construction.

If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?

I would like to see more women in senior roles in the construction industry. Construction is very male dominated and I think we still have a long way to go to reduce the gender pay gap and have strong female roles in the highest positions.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I have been lucky throughout my career so far to always have people that could give me formal and informal advice and support. I’ve gained so much by observing how my peers respond to certain situations in the workplace and on site and have learned a lot from them.

Since joining L&Q, I have been delivering talks at secondary schools around London, where I inform young people about how I started working in the construction industry, the different roles available to them in the industry and answer questions the students have. I really enjoy passing on my experience to young people and I hope that as a female I can influence more young women who attend my talks to consider construction as a career!

How would you encourage more young women and girls into a career in construction?

I am currently a member of the National Association of Women in Construction and encouraging more women to consider a career in construction is a huge passion of mine – in fact I wrote my Master’s dissertation on the differences in managerial competencies between male and female project managers! I would certainly encourage more women to consider a career in the industry – I think most people would think of the stereotypical male builder, however there is a huge selection of different design and management roles on offer in which women can excel, and there are construction roles across all sorts of developments – from housing to council planning.

I personally love my job at The Rushgroves because I’m able to spend a good part of my day outside and it’s a very satisfying role, as I’m able to witness the progress of a development of such a great scale from start to finish and play a key role in building brand new homes from the ground up. I also love involving the local community in our work. Recently at The Rushgroves we led a project with art students from Barnet and Southgate College, who created designs for the site hoardings encapsulating three key themes for the town of Hendon - community, environment and the future.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

In the future I would like to continue to develop my career, skills and experience to become a future leader in the construction industry. I have already started to work towards my chartership to become a well-rounded project manager. Inspiring and guiding more girls and women into construction would also be one of my priorities.


anna nasalska featured

Inspirational Woman: Anna Nasalska-Olczyk | Design & Technical Manager, L&Q

 

Anna Nasalska-Olczyk

As national treasurer for the NAWIC, Anna, 37, based in London, has discovered a love of mentoring young women in the construction industry and has been mentored herself, in turn meeting a lot of women like her who are passionate about the work they do on site, further driving her to pursue her chosen career path.

Day to day, Anna works with architects and engineers at The Rushgroves, an L&Q development in north London, on the initial designs of a site and follows it through to execution. She facilitates workshops with designers and trades, considering each design element, including structural and mechanical elements and is responsible for ensuring that everyone involved in the process, understands and buys into the design of the buildings. She find it incredibly fulfilling to see families then move into and live in the homes she has worked on, knowing how her design decisions will be contributing to their quality of life.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I am a Design & Technical Manager for L&Q, a leading residential developer. I have been working at The Rushgroves, a new development in North London since the start of the design process after being approached by L&Q. My role involves working with architects and engineers to design the homes we’re building, and carrying out the designs on site. My day to day role can vary, however this might include attending workshops with designers, builders and product manufacturers considering each design element of structure, mechanical and electrical systems. I work closely with everyone who is involved in the process, to ensure everyone understands the concepts and buys into my designs. This exciting development will offer 387 new homes and is designed with community at its heart.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Growing up I always enjoyed observing how people live and how the built environment can impact people’s lives, as well as their health and development. This interest led me to undertake studies in Architecture and Town Planning. After graduating I worked as an Urban Designer and researcher at the Warsaw University of Technology. Early in my career I was determined to become an architect and design houses, however further on I have recognised the importance of being able to take a design and convert it into a building. The complexity of the subject, together with its design, sustainability and financial elements gave me an opportunity to develop myself professionally. I then went on to complete my engineering studies with a commercially-focused course.

I later took a career break to support my family and when my husband relocated to London we all followed. I took this opportunity to consider my options and decided to go back to university. This time I studied an MSc in Real Estate and Planning at UCL, which focused on the planning and investment required by property developers to create world class architecture in London. Once I graduated I applied for a position on a construction site, and secured a job as a document controller. Working on site I witnessed the process of completing buildings and people starting to use the new space. I worked as a document controller for a year before I stepped up to work in technical and design management.

Have you faced any particular challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?

Studying and adapting to my new role after university as a new mother was a challenge! During this period however I found the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) helpful for meeting a network of likeminded people who were able to help me with adapting to these changes.

If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?

I have always had a positive experience on site, I work with a great team! However I know not all are so lucky, and I would love to see more opportunities offered to women. Within the industry I would like to see focus on merit and ability, as is the case at L&Q and The Rushgroves.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

As part of my involvement with the National Association of Women in Construction and RIBA Fluid Mentoring, I have had the opportunity to be a mentor as well as be mentored by others, and I find that it’s a fulfilling and positive resource for all. Being part of an organisation like NAWIC has allowed me to meet lots of interesting people in the industry and find out about all the different opportunities and type of roles on offer. This information is extremely useful when you’re starting out and don’t know what part of the industry is of most interest to you. NAWIC organises regular tours of different building sites which helps us all to learn about different trade skills and techniques. L&Q supports NAWIC initiatives and just recently we organised a visit for members at The Rushgroves.

Being part of NAWIC means I have met lots of other women who are passionate about construction, and this really encouraged me onto the career path I am on now.

How would you encourage more young women and girls into a career in construction?

Construction can be a very fulfilling career, as you can watch your efforts transform an empty site into a place where people can thrive for years to come and it’s definitely something many more young women should be considering. The results of your work are tangible and can have a positive impact on people’s lives.

More young women need to be told early on while they are at school about the benefits of careers in construction and the opportunities open to them. If more of us working in the industry can go into schools and colleges and talk about our work, it could make a tangible difference. Personally, I really enjoyed Maths and Science when I was younger but also have a creative side so would particularly recommend it as a career for young women who are looking for a job which allows them to utilise both of these skills. There are such a variety of management roles which women could be excelling in and I think it’s important that girls know that these options are available to them!

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

My current focus is to see the project at The Rushgroves through to the end and welcome the residents into their new homes. This role presents lots of design challenges – for example we are creating a neighbourhood space which incorporates some complex solutions to store rainwater and direct the flow back to the nearby Silk Stream – however I am really enjoying finding ways to create a development that puts the residents’ needs at its heart. This will be a great achievement when we reach it, and I’m looking forward to see the final product of our efforts and my designs.


Jacqueline O'Donovan: What I have learnt from being a female director in a male-dominated industry

Jacqueline O'Donovan, managing director, O’Donovan Waste Disposal

A few years ago, it was reported that women account for only 10 per cent of the construction workforce - a low, yet unsurprising number.

Jacqueline O'Donovan (F)I entered the industry at a young age, having to join in the running of the family business, O’Donovan Waste disposal, following the death of my father. My three siblings and I had to work together to keep the company going – it was certainly a challenging time. Entering an industry that was, and still is in some areas, predominately male at just 19 was not without its difficulties, but I quickly learnt to adapt and demonstrate that I didn’t just deserve to be there, but that I could flourish.

Having looked back over my 30 years at O’Donovan, there have been a number of key lessons that I have learnt from being a female director in a male dominated industry.

Not to under estimate my abilities

As I took on more responsibility within the company, I began to challenge myself to look beyond the business and to consider how to improve the industry as a whole. Today, the time I have committed to improving safety across the sector has seen me collaborate with CLOCS, the Construction Logistics and Cyclist Safety organisation, on the design of innovative lorries and safety features which are changing the face of transport policies across the UK.

To laugh not cry

I would often not be taken seriously when I answered the phone, with clients demanding to speak to one of the male senior members of staff. At first this frustrated me, but I just had to laugh at it and think of how I could tackle the problem head on– one way I managed this was to train some of the male staff on the phones, putting me in charge and having others report in to me.

To forgive their assumptions

When starting out, many of the men in the company presumed I wasn’t savvy about certain regulations or equipment. I would ultimately surprise them with my knowledge of safe working practices, which I have strived to enforce during my time here. A key achievement for me was when I took over the safety and training of O’Donovan’s HGV drivers, even creating my own driver Certificate of Professional Competence course - one of the first to be tailored specifically to the exact training needs of drivers working across the waste industry.

To listen and learn – every day is an education

When you make up such a small proportion of the workforce, the most important first step is to observe how the company operates – not just the professional working practices but the relationships and dialogue between team members, and how you can be involved in that. You can also learn a lot by trying out different roles – for instance even if you enter at a managerial level, I would suggest spending a day with the contact centre or sales team and immersing yourself in the environment. Ask questions about their role and understand their daily tasks.

That I can make a decision quicker than most males

When I’m in meetings, I’ve often found that while my co-workers are still discussing the ideas for innovation, for example, I would have already weighed up the options and decided which the better strategy is by the time the conversation is over. Everyone works differently, but I have noticed that I am more suited to multi-tasking, and when faced with a challenge, I am normally one of the first in the room to consider all of the angles and come to a conclusion.

That I have to shout louder to be heard – metaphorically

I’ve always believed that actions speak louder than words – and this certainly applies to my experience as a woman entering a male industry. Rather than battling to be heard through bravado and words for the sake of words, I gradually stamped my authority on the business by implementing my beliefs and making a noticeable difference to not just O’Donovan but the industry. That gained the respect of my male counterparts more than any talking would have done.