Nicky Wells was sexually assaulted as she approved crucial paperwork for a section of the £17bn London Crossrail project. She was one of the most senior managers on the site, but she was afraid of the consequences of reporting the man who had groped and cornered her. The event had taken place on the most prestigious site she had ever worked at.
“I struggled with it for weeks because I’ve worked so hard to be taken seriously in the industry,” she says. “Although the individual that did this to me wasn’t necessarily high up . . . he was very well connected, and well respected within [the subcontractor]. The fear of being the one whose name and reputation was being marked and dirtied was what prevented me from reporting it immediately.”
It was a male colleague who witnessed the assault who eventually reported it. Although their employer, the site’s lead contractor, took the complaint seriously, action against the offender did not progress. Ultimately, he did not answer to the company that ran the site. The subcontractor’s leadership were made aware of the incident but no effective action was taken.
The incident, a couple of years ago, and how the complaint progressed, were a stark reminder that while lead contractors insist on a workplace culture or behavioural rules these remain at the mercy of a fragmented supply chain that accounts for most workers on a site. “I refer to it as the gentleman’s club mentality because it’s ‘all for the boys’,” says Ms Wells. “It [was] because of that male, old school mentality that they think they can do it.”
She was approached by a rival not long after the complaints process failed to deliver results and decided to leave. She now leads the quality team, a tough management job, at O’Keefe Group, a company she chose in part for its attitude towards women and diversity.
Construction sites around the world remain some of the most male-dominated working environments, according to consultancy McKinsey. Overall female participation in the industry globally is just 12 per cent, but for site-focused roles the figure is far lower, with 2 per cent of machine operative and tradesperson positions held by women.
Women do outnumber men in office-based or administrative jobs, where they represent 80 per cent of the total.
“In all the companies I have worked in, women are seen as predominantly having ‘female-type’ roles,” says Ms Wells. This has an impact in an industry where on-site accomplishments and engineering expertise are vital currency for career progression. In the past this has put her at a disadvantage in senior-level discussions: “It was a case of ‘hang on a minute, you haven’t earned your right to be here, lady, you don’t know nothing about engineering’.”
While the number of women in leadership positions in the UK matches the overall number in the sector (12 per cent), the number of female chief executives or chief financial officers is extremely low.
Construction companies do recognise the need to create more inclusive environments and cultivate a more diverse workforce. Not least because a global skills shortage is crippling the sector.
The UK is in particularly bad shape, with an ageing domestic workforce, nearly half of whom are aged 45 or over, propped up by migrant labour. In a bid to combat this many of the big companies, including Willmott Dixon, Wates and Lendlease, have set ambitious targets for achieving a better gender balance in their staff intake and senior positions.
Yet, for Holly Price, training and development director at British demolition specialist Keltbray, targets are meaningless unless accompanied by cultural change. “We’re very good at identifying the problem and responding immediately because we’re engineers naturally, we’re people that fix [and] build things,” she says.
“It’s like ‘we can fix this, we’ll do an initiative now and then that will be it done’, but . . . if we’re going to create a more inclusive environment and [have a] more diverse [workforce] these things have to become the norm, and not something that we do to tick a box to win a project.”
As a 16-year-old Ms Price saw a demolition using explosives and knew immediately it was what she wanted to do. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a set of tower blocks being blown down,” she says, “but it’s kind of cool”.
Since then she has worked her way up in demolition, a specialism with a noted macho culture. Now the first female president of the UK’s National Federation of Demolition Contractors, she too has experienced the challenges that come with holding a site-based position.
Operatives move from job to job, often travelling across the country and spending extended periods away from family. As deadlines approach, particularly on the most prestigious schemes, workers are incentivised to work long hours and come under immense pressure to finish.
In such an environment being one of a small number of women, or the only one, can feel intense. “I would finish the day with the brave face and go off in some Travelodge somewhere . . . and feel pretty down,” says Ms Price.
Despite the challenges, Ms Wells and Ms Price still love the industry. In fact, they call for more women to join it. This would not only create a more diverse environment, but would also improve how companies in the sector do business. This is “not because we’re better at the job”, says Ms Wells. “Women think differently to men.”
Women are able to apply empathy more often than men, she says, and that helps in the smooth running of a site.
91% male: Swedish construction workforce
Sweden has some of the most progressive laws relating to gender equality and one of the highest female employment rates globally, writes Zak Garner-Purkis. Yet the construction sector has a 91 per cent male workforce. Elin Kebert, at the Swedish Construction Federation, outlines initiatives to drive change:
Feminist government targets
Creating a more equal construction industry is policy of Sweden’s so-called “first feminist government in the world”. In 2018, the industry set a national goal to have 25 per cent female new recruits by 2030.
Women only apprenticeships
Housebuilder Ikano Bostad, an offshoot of Ikea Group, was the first to offer women-only apprenticeships in carpentry. They have been followed by multinational contracting giant Skanska and local residential developer JM.
Targeting an older demographic
Initiatives to recruit women often focus on younger generations. But a programme backed by the Swedish Construction Federation is seeking to fast-track older professionals into site manager positions. The scheme is popular and helps to fill previously vacant places on vocational courses for both men and women seeking a career change.
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