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'Women just don't have the hair for hard hats!'

Women in construction, changing equality.

The Inspire Summit 2018: Women in UK Construction, Engineering & Housing saw an array of speakers and attendees offer their perspective on many different topics that pivoted off the subject 'women in construction.' A member of WPS Compliance Consultancy attended and this is her account of the day.

There is no question that there is a lack of representation of women in construction; Dr Pragya Agarwal demonstrated this in her talk, revealing that a pitiful 12% of the sector is female. Her findings indicated that 85% of young women perceived the industry as masculine. One attendee who wanted to become an architect from a young age asked, 'all young children enjoy playing with Lego and building things, so what changes?'  This question demonstrated that even with our culture creating gender ideals, young girls still enjoy the idea of building.  But how do we attract women into this dynamic and ever-changing industry?

My initial reaction was to question our culture.  This isn't just about an industry; we have systematically created inequality for generations.  To encourage equality we need to question the processes and standards we have set ourselves; we need to address our own behaviours, not just the large construction companies but also the SME's and micro businesses.

Three other speakers (Nigel Wilson, Paul Chandler and Duncan Williams) play a large role in promoting the idea of females in construction. Paul asked continually, ''why treat women in your personal life differently from your work life'?'  He  described an interview he carried out with a woman, who talked herself out of the job within five minutes. She told him all reasons why she was not suitable for the role, e.g. working hours, single parent, etc. Paul said that, regardless of her statements, he  listened and ended the interview with a 'when can you start?'  This anecdote describes the underlying feeling in women that they are not good enough to be taken on because their personal life is too diverse and wouldn't be suitable for the company.  

This is such an important issue that needed raising. Women are not applying for roles that they would like as they fear their lifestyle will make it impossible but, with flexibility and support from a Company they can excel. Isn't this something that we wish for all our employees? We need to change our strategies to accommodate a different generation and different expectations. Traditional 9-5 is not longer the only viable work model; women want careers, and companies need to recognise this and start adapting the working environment.  

Our keynote speaker was Barbara Res who triumphed against the odds and built the 'Trump Tower'. She spoke of construction in the 70's and 80's and the appalling attitudes and experiences she endured. It was inspiring to hear about her resilience in the face of discrimination every single day.  Barbara described the letters she received which detailed why women don't fit into construction, including the comment, 'Women just don't have the hair for hard hats.'  We have come a long way from those days, and perhaps the attitudes we experience are less extreme, it's one thing to help women into the industry and another to help them to feel valued.

So what can you do as a construction company? Ask yourself how your company being represented. What messages are you giving out, intentionally or otherwise? How are you doing it and who is doing it? What does your company offer both men and women, e.g. paternal leave, pay, perks, etc.? Not every man wants to go golfing, just as not every woman wants a spa day.  These are the type of  attitudes and assumptions we have all been guilty of in the past, but to progress and to support our future generations in construction, it's time to change.

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