Women in the Workplace- did BIS miss the point?

Yesterday the BIS report looking at women in the workplace came out after an extensive period of investigation that included evidence from Architects for Change, WAMT and ourselves, as well as consultation through Mumsnet and Women’s Hour. The conclusion of the report brought up many relevant and important points including flexible working, stereotyping and support for the Public Sector Equality Duties. Whilst I applaud this work and feel it is all vital I can’t help but think it’s missing an important point.
Most of it is designed to: get women into careers, overcome barriers around child-care or support them into senior roles, with very little considering those already in non-stereotypical roles struggling to crack the glass ceiling1or even just find supportive employment. But although some of the conclusions it covers, like positive action, equality impact assessments and pay-transparency could help, the likelihood in the construction sector is that these things will have little impact.
Whilst I am often met with the assumption that women leave the sector to have children most of the women I know that have left, or are looking to leave, do so before they have even thought about reproducing 2–5.  This for me highlights a very important point; something else is driving them away.  I know for many this seems like too big, or small, a problem to deal with depending on your mind-set, but I believe the answer is quite simple – support.  Studies have shown that women are more likely to stay, and be loyal to an organisation, if they feel it would support her and looking back over my own career I would agree – it was never the negative instances that bothered me as much as the company’s inability, or refusal,  to do anything about it.
More women are embarking on construction-related degrees every year, but we are losing them just as quickly – a critical mass approach does not seem to be working 6,7. Without understanding the challenges and barriers that women in the sector face, and putting in adequate measures to support them, as well as talking about dated views and sub-conscious biases that deny them progression opportunities, the encouragement of more women into the sector might simply end up with more women leaving it.
As organisations we need to start understanding that in this situation silence does not equal happiness – we must be proactive in supporting our women without overtly singling them out and understand that they may well be as in-the-dark about what’s holding them back as you are.  This change won’t happen overnight, but by giving your workforce a reason to trust that you understand, or are at least willing to find out about, the real barriers they face and show that you have moved beyond obvious myths, it will come.
Happy Building
1.           Gurjao, S. Inclusivity : the Changing Role of Women in the Construction.CIOB (2006).
2.           Graft-Johnson, A. De, Manley, S. & Greed, C. Why Do Women Leave Architecture?: Research Into the Retention of Women in Architectural Practice. (2003).at <http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&btnG=Search&q=intitle:Why+do+women+leave+architecture+?+Research+into+the+retention+of+women+in+architectural+practice#0>
3.           Bagilhole, B. M., Dainty, A. R. J. & Neale, R. H. A Woman Engineer  ’ s Experiences of Working on British Construction Sites *. Int. J. Engng Ed.18, 422–429 (2002).
4.           Powell, A., Dainty, A. & Bagilhole, B. A poisoned chalice? Why UK women engineering and technology students may receive more “help” than their male peers. Gender and Education 23, 585–599 (2011).
5.           Bennett, J. F., Davidson, M. J., Galeand, A. W. & Gale, A. W. Women in construction : a comparative investigation into the expectations and experiences of female and male construction undergraduates and employees Women in construction : a comparative investigation into th.Women In Management Review Emerald Article : (2005).
6.           Powell, A., Bagilhole, B. M. & Dainty, A. R. J. The problem of women’s assimilation into UK engineering cultures: can critical mass work? Equal Opportunities International 25, 688–699 (2006).
7.           Greed, C. Women in the Construction Professions: Achieving Critical Mass. Gender, Work and Organization 7, 181–196 (2000).


  1. Is this inequality in the construction industry in particular just UK experience or world-wide? Do more women stay in the construction industry and related professions in other countries? If so can we learn from their experience?


  2. Hi Caroline, the situation can differ vastly. For example in Ethiopia women often work on site as labourers but are less represented in the professions – the opposite situation to the UK. Australia and some scandinavian countries report higher women over all in the professions but this can vary between roles with architecture usually being the most represented. We can of course learn from these countries, but we must understand that stereotyping of roles plays an important factor and can create a barrier in one country that does not exist in another. This is why support is so important.