It was hugely positive on International Women’s Day last month to see a variety of construction employers showing their commitment to bringing more women into the industry and increasing diversity.
The drive to break down barriers to careers in construction for women is not a new one and while we are seeing some great progress in the industry, there is still a lack of knowledge about the wide range of opportunities and career paths available and accessible to women.
North Belfast-based training provider WOMEN’STEC has been operating construction training programmes for women in skills such as joinery, furniture making, plumbing and electrics for over 20 years.
They offer a range of programmes and courses including the innovative new #NotJustForBoys scheme, which encourages girls and young women to explore careers in non-traditional sectors and provides links to industry through site visits, work experience placements and internships.
Lynn Carvill, Chief Executive of WOMEN’STEC, says there is widespread support for bringing more women into construction from the industry, but the message needs to get to girls much earlier.
“Unfortunately, it is still the case that if girls are not sure what they want to do, they are pushed into stereotypical jobs like hair, beauty and makeup. But we have found that when offered opportunities in construction trades, many will go for it,” says Lynn.
“There are opportunities that are not being offered to girls in school and particularly in co-educational schools, it’s clear that girls are less likely to be in the workshop. We are trying to address that,” she says.
The #NotJustForBoys campaign will this year aim to encourage girls from Primary 7 upwards to consider careers in construction by delivering a range of training sessions across Northern Ireland over the next six months.
Lynn says making young women and girls aware of what is possible is still a major challenge.
“So much of it is about education and demystifying what construction is. Many girls want careers where they can use their hands, build things or be craftswomen. We are seeing more women in those positions, but we need to illuminate them and highlight the benefits of those roles in terms of the salaries they can earn,” adds Lynn.
“If you go to London or Scotland, there are more women in those roles than here in Northern Ireland. Our focus is on making connections between those who want to do the jobs and the employers who need talent. That begins at primary school, but has to then continue through high school and college. Girls need to understand there is no reason they can’t follow a career in construction.”
Maria Bradley, HR Director at Gilbert-Ash and a board member at CITB NI, says that in her thirty plus years in the industry she has seen things improve, albeit the improvement continues to be slow with women making up 12%-14% of the industry across the UK.
Gilbert-Ash currently has a 22% female average with 13% of those in site-based roles. The company collaborates with CEF NI and CITBNI to promote construction opportunities and it has been and continues to be a strong supporter of WOMEN’STEC.
“Most companies now have women employed in various roles across their organisations and we are seeing young girls and women take a serious look at building their careers in the industry,” says Maria.
“We do, however, need to continue raising the visibility of the women already in the industry and we need to highlight the exciting, rewarding work they are involved in.”
She notes that CITBNI has been very successful in using its bank of Construction Ambassadors to tell their stories of what life in construction is like for women and this is well aligned with courses at FE and HE Colleges supportive of women in the built environment.
“For me, the overall aim is to break the stereotype that the construction industry is a boy’s club, and to raise awareness that a rewarding construction career is an opportunity for everybody, regardless of gender,” says Maria.
“Then, I believe we will see a strong pipeline of girls and women confidently coming into the industry to build their careers, and we will have a stronger industry with both male and female employees working across all roles.”
Mark Spence, Managing Director of the Construction Employers Federation NI, acknowledges that the industry is facing a shortage of skills and says CEF’s members are advertising vacancies in all disciplines and at all levels, which could in part be addressed by attracting more women into construction.
begin at home
“Traditional perceptions persist that construction is mainly for men. These misconceptions generally begin at home with family and friends, and there is still an in-built bias in schools to steer young people away from trade careers. I think there continues to be a lack of understanding of how much a person can earn in trades and professional construction careers, so we have more to do to educate people about the opportunities,” he says.
Mark is of the view that career choices from an early age should be gender neutral and inclusive.
“We want women to know career paths do exist from entry level to senior level for those with talent, regardless of gender and as the number of females in the industry grows, this is creating a more collegiate environment of support and helping accelerate the adoption of more enlightened working practices in construction,” he says.
“But we still need to reach out to parents and explain the modern ways of working, as well as engaging earlier with the education system, from primary schools age through to careers services in high school, to show the range of careers on offer and put female role models in front of children. That’s why organisations like WOMEN’STEC and their ##NotJustForBoys campaign are so important.”
Mark notes that working environments continue to develop, with the next phase likely to see further progress in digitalisation, automation and manufacturing, which will create further opportunities.
“I believe the next few years will see a seismic change in the composition of the workforce,” he says. “Construction cannot afford to fail to attract a more diverse workforce if it to realise its potential.”