How increasing diversity could help SMEs in construction

In celebration of International Women’s Day we spoke to Shelley Lawrence from Women into Construction (WiC) to learn how women can contribute to sector targets, and how SMEs can benefit from increasing diversity in their workforce.

Why is diversity in construction important?

The construction sector employs nearly 1 in 10 of workers in the UK. The 2018 Construction Sector Deal emphasises concerns about falling numbers of workers. Almost a third of sector workers are aged over 50, which the 2016 Farmer Review described as a ‘looming demographic ‘time bomb’’. Added to which, we’re already lagging behind the Government target to build 300,000 homes each year.

As Shelley explains, 'the construction industry has a huge skills gap, and […] Brexit and Covid have only made that wider'. The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) estimates that we need an additional 31,600 workers recruited and trained each year, just to keep up with the current levels of demand. The Government’s Construction Sector Deal emphasises the need to equip workers with new digital skills and recruit or retain those with traditional skills.

One of the solutions to increase the pool of talent is to encourage more diversity. Currently, 86% of construction workers are male. Of the women who do work in the industry, 80% are office-based, while just 2% are site-based. So, what sort of site-based roles are women working in?

‘If you look at those stats, the 2% includes cleaners, looking at actual operatives it’s [only] 1%. When you look at things like roofing and plastering, that goes down to unmeasurable numbers.’


Shelley goes onto suggest one reason why this is,

‘It comes from that historic route of entry into the industry, where boys would see their Dad do it, or their uncles or brothers. They would get their sons and nephews into the industry on apprenticeships.’


Productivity can be increased by recruiting from non-traditional backgrounds, but according to WiC gender diversity alone can lead to a 20% increased productivity. In fact, closing the gender gap could increase GDP by an average of 35%. As part of their work the WiC team go out to colleges, schools and local job centres to create a pool of talent. They also work with women who are changing careers, or returning to construction.

Shelley says, ‘there’s a lot of women out there with fantastic, transferable skills […] you need to widen that talent pool. So that’s why more women should be approached, and be encouraged and supported into the industry.’ This is why another strand of WiC’s work focusses on working with contractors to run training and work experience for women, with the aim of getting them into jobs.

Why should SMEs employ more women?

There’s evidence that greater diversity in a workforce leads to greater creativity and innovation. Increasing innovation is a key part of Government’s strategy for achieving their sector targets to reduce costs, become more efficient, hit sustainability goals and increase exports. Increasing innovation is one of the aims of the I-Construct project. But besides the broader economic and productivity benefits to increasing diversity in construction, diversity supports innovation from the ground-up as Shelley says:

‘If your company is more creative and has a diverse workforce, that pushes innovation, you are ultimately going to be more competitive. If you’re looking at it from a commercial point of view it really does create a more forward-thinking pool of people, bringing ideas together and working towards change.’


This is backed up by research from McKinsey suggesting women in senior roles can have a serious impact the bottom-line. Companies with more gender diversity in their executive teams are 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability. But recent research by Construction Manager found that the top construction contractors in the UK had, on average, 5% fewer women in their boardrooms than at the other top public companies.

Shelley thinks developing women into more senior roles is an important part of increasing construction sector diversity:

‘We need to see more women, more ethnically diverse people coming through, and being more senior, [because] the more diversity you have in senior roles, that impact and that change is going to happen a lot quicker’.


How can SMEs support female employees?

If your business already employs women, how can you support them?

Evidence suggests women are more likely to lose their job, or report lower earnings as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. They may also have additional caring responsibilities. Digital environments can make networking, remote-working and professional learning easier, but supporting your female colleagues, may be as simple as reaching out and finding out what they need:

‘Covid is definitely going to have a disproportionate effect on women’s careers. SMEs need to have conversations with the women that they currently employ and open up opportunities to more women.’


Women in Construction, a 2020 report by construction recruiter Randstad found 50% of women polled wanted more flexible working options, and 42% suggested better childcare options were needed. Shelley describes this as a parental issue, rather than simply a problem that women must face:

‘A lot of companies and employees ask ‘How can we support more women so that they can still take their children to school and have a job?’, but actually if they had that approach for all parents – if more men felt empowered and supported, taking time off for childcare or having flexible hours – there will be better mental health in the home, and potentially more hours in the day for women to be at work. So, looking at your policies for parents is a good step forward.’


Another challenge for SMEs is overcoming the years of historic bias against women working on site. Shelley organises unconscious bias training and diversity inclusion training for the workforce where she is currently based within Hill – a housebuilder in Cambridge:

‘they’re committing to attract more women into the industry, but also to making sure the culture is right within their company, and that those women are going to be treated correctly once they’re there.’


But it’s not just main contractors on site, it’s important for the bigger companies to influence their supply chain, and get subcontractors onboard too:

‘If the subcontractors aren’t on board and they’re not doing their bit to improve their culture […] it’s going to fall down. I feel really strongly about using positive influence to get everybody onboard’.


For larger organisations trying to encourage more women to join their ranks, WiC offers members support in recruiting women. They find that by simply adding the WiC member’s logo to their job advertisements, a company will see a positive impact on the number of women applying.

What are the advantages for women?

On the other side, some women are biased about an industry they may not have been encouraged to enter when they were younger – there’s a lack of understanding about what the construction industry has to offer them. So, how can you encourage women to apply for the roles you advertise?

WiC promotes the wide range of roles available in the construction industry, and Shelley describes construction as a ‘best kept secret’:

‘If you say ‘construction’ to somebody they say, ‘Oh well I don’t want to be a plumber or electrician’ [but] it’s a really varied, amazing, creative and dynamic industry to be part of. A lot of women say to me, no two days are the same. […] there’s camaraderie too’.


‘There’s not many industries that have such a huge impact on their local infrastructure, building hospitals, schools, having a really positive impact on building their local community. I think great pride comes from that type of work as well.’


But they cherry on the top? Shelley adds, ‘it pays really well. We need to talk about that. We need to get paid well.’ In fact according to Construction Manager magazine, women in a full-time contract earn just 2.3% less than their male counterparts, compared to 10.1% on average across all UK industries.

About Women into Construction

Women into Construction (WiC) provides bespoke support to women wishing to work in the construction industry. They work with housebuilders and contractors to recruit women, helping to reduce the skills gap and create a more gender-equal workforce.

WiC currently run bespoke employment programmes in Essex, London and the West Midlands, but are keen to work with contractors UK-wide.

Shelley Lawrence is the WiC project manager for the Cambridge area. She has been working within Hill Group UK building a programme to encourage diversity within their existing talent pool, and provide support to women across the region. Hill Group were recently announced as the winners of the ‘Best Training or Recruitment Initiative’ Housebuilder Aware for their partnership with WiC.

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