Simon Phillips, Regional Managing Director of Esh Border Construction, discusses.

17th February 2017

The proportion of women employed in the construction industry continues to grow – but clearly, much work still has to be done if we’re to turn a trickle into a flood.

If you were to ask prospective female employees whether they would like to help shape the country’s future towns and cities, while building sustainable communities, many would reply in the affirmative.

However, if you then told them that they could do just that in construction, then the response from a significant proportion would likely change.

Suddenly they would think of demanding physical labour and 12 hours spent standing in the rain, or worse, a closed male environment where builders’ bums and wolf-whistling proliferate. Overcoming such long-held perceptions continues to be a challenge for the industry.

Across the UK, women still only represent 12 per cent of construction professionals and one per cent of workers in manual trades. Construction remains one of the most gender-segregated professions in the world. To try to claim anything different would be foolish, and there are still significant issues at grassroots level where career stereotypes must continue to be addressed.

In fact, a recent study from the Scottish Funding Council found that 93 per cent enrolled on construction courses are currently male. Worse for construction, that’s against the backdrop of a much greater gender balance being seen across the further education spectrum.

Of course, the fundamental question remains, does this traditionally ‘macho’ world actually want more women in its midst? The answer to my mind is an emphatic yes, absolutely. Where there are ambitious women with great skills, then they will be welcome, and indeed very much wanted as part of a widely skilled workforce.

Nevertheless, an industry determination is one thing, but the process of actually getting women into jobs is another entirely.

In 2017, we’re definitely seeing greater interest from women at all levels, but retaining that engagement and then harnessing it is the key issue as we look to turn courses into apprenticeships, and apprenticeships into long-term careers.

Undoubtedly, public perceptions of the industry remain rooted in the past – but that’s changing, albeit slowly, helped by construction’s slow recovery from the recession. A previous lack of on-the-job training and apprenticeship opportunities has been gradually turned around as part of a diligent and wide-spreading effort to rid construction of its outdated image. The industry is changing, and it’s changing for the better.

Over the last 10 years, there has been a conscious movement nationally towards getting more women interested in the sector, and I firmly believe that it’s working. At Esh Border Construction, we are seeing an increased number of women applying for roles, and in our Livingston office alone, we currently have four talented ladies whose career development is being supported by the company through HNC and degree courses, further learning at our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) Skills Centre, and more. They have already proved a valuable addition to the team.

As a company, we’ve worked hard to provide opportunities for all in an inclusive culture, and I believe we’re now seeing the pay-off from that.

The only criteria that we look for is an ability to do the job and an attitude of self-determination. Of course, working on site can be physically demanding, but that’s not all we do. It’s certainly no reason to be put off by an industry that’s constantly searching for skilled workers of all backgrounds to fill a variety of key roles, including decision-makers and buyers.

Some critics still cite an undercurrent of harassment and bullying when it comes to female workers, but that’s not been my experience at all. It simply wouldn’t be tolerated at Esh Border Construction.

We’ve seen women bring unique skills and talents, in turn boosting our wider fortunes. They’ve significantly enhanced the spectrum of our abilities thanks to often superior personal and organisational skills, not to mention a different and valuable viewpoint on how on-site challenges can be overcome, to name just a few benefits. That’s before you’ve even touched upon the associated positive of reducing the industry’s high staff turnover.

It helps that skilled jobs in the industry tend to be highly paid – and more and more women are discovering this strong earning potential, not to mention greater flexibility for a better work-life balance.

When we are recruiting, we want to see a diverse range of applicants, focusing on skills and attributes, not on gender, and it’s essential to communicate that.  We look upon candidates as individuals, and the expertise they offer – it doesn’t matter if they are male or female. Essentially, if the women in our workforce reach their potential, then it helps us to reach our potential as a company.

It’s predicted that a quarter of the construction workforce will be female come 2020. If the industry is to grow meaningfully, while emerging from the shadow of high staff turnover and poor recruitment, then that really can’t come soon enough.

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