Women in Construction – Parliamentary Event Review

Chrissi3-300x202Last night I had the pleasure of being invited to the Women in Construction parliamentary workshop hosted by Meg Munn MP. The aim of the workshop was to consider some ideas around why there was an under-representation of women in construction and what could be done to improve the situation. So we thought this week we would offer you a review of the workshop and hopefully invite you to add your own thoughts in the comments.

Regular readers will probably have a fair understanding of our position on the topic but for those who are new, firstly hello, secondly…a recap: –

The problem – We feel that women and other minority groups are unfairly represented and treated in industry. This belief is based upon the many papers written specifically about the issue that find two thirds of women identify with being discriminated against in the construction work place.

Why is it a problem? – Although the construction industry is a brilliant sector to work in for many reasons, it’s also a sector with its challenges. We need to step back and consider whether or not, of the 2.5 million people working in the industry, the average white male is happy with their career? In an industry that often expects 70 hour working weeks, bogus self-employment contracts and a high stress environment the answer is not always the yes we might be seeking. So if the average man isn’t happy, what would happen if we added the challenges that face women to that picture? Would you accept unfavourable working conditions and discrimination? It’s a lot to ask. I’ll work 70 hours a week if you promote me –  I’m likely to just get frustrated if you don’t.

Why does it happen? – The reasons the average person is unhappy are systemic, and we need to take a wider view to change these – they include challenges such as late payment terms, suicide bidding and increasingly tight programmes.

The bigger problem is that these factors have a knock-on effect on discrimination. Research shows us that when we are happy and secure in our workplace we are more likely to act in an inclusive and equal way. When we are scared and concerned for our job security we are more likely to segregate and be prejudicial.

What might make it worse? – So if we are in a situation where people are worried about their jobs and you introduce a programme that appears to be giving one group an advantage over another, three guesses as to how that might turn out?

The solution – You need to establish a base level of fairness, inclusion and respect within your organisation. Only once your staff feel safe and have a positive attitude to equality (as they don’t see it as a threat to their own position) can you then start to implement positive action programmes. The CITB Be Fair framework was created to do just this, so that’s an easy win. Especially when you consider that the things you need to do in order to foster positive attitudes to equality also increase employee engagement (or organisational citizenship behaviour, as some of the text books are fond of saying).

Back to the workshop – it was introduced by Meg Munn, who unlike some of the politicians I have seen straddle this particular pony over the years seemed to have a real interest and passion in, not only talking about, but making some positive change regarding women, in the construction workplace and across the workforce in general. Her opening remarks were humorous and meaningful and it was good to see such support for the sector.

Next up was Simon Carr, the Managing Director of Henry Boot which is a company we have seen before in the equality arena. It was good to hear him share his best practice regarding the work undertaken and more importantly the value that leaders in the organisation placed upon it. It’s not many companies that field an MD at a diversity event so, kudos.

Judy Lowe, the Deputy Chair of CITB then gave her comments regarding the situation, focusing on the importance of the retention of women and the need to address this through fairness, inclusion and respect. She was kind enough to credit our paper alongside other academic work and so, of course, we are a little biased in our opinion, but we felt that she made important points that reflected the situation of many women in the sector.

Then to the round table groups; four groups in the room were tasked with addressing why women didn’t feel supported in the sector and how this could be moved forward. I don’t want to spoil the surprise as I know that a compilation of these is being worked upon, but overall many common themes were identified that it’s about leadership, having something to sign up to, supporting women, recognising the experience of women, appreciating working hours and many more – too many to list here.

Meg then summed up the points and to our surprise (and, of course, delight) mentioned the CITB Be Fair framework as a possible solution to these challenges.

Overall I felt the evening did a good job in bringing these issues to light. It could be said that the points raised have been established in research, both inside and outside of the sector, but that would be missing the point somewhat. The main thing is not that we are discovering new information, but rather that we were sharing it; and that information was not coming from one lone source but a number of sources independently. This I find is much more powerful and influential to those making decisions in industry than academic research, no matter how firmly academic research establishes the facts it presents.

Now we must focus on what comes next, which is taking this momentum and translating it into something that is practical and purposeful for the sector. Judy Lowe quoted me as saying that “over 20 years of initiatives have failed to make any impact on the number of women in the sector” – here we have a real opportunity to change that and I have a strong belief that if we continue to work together to increase our knowledge and share our findings, we will find ourselves not only with more women in the sector, but with more talent overall wanting to work in an industry that we are proud to work in.