Why is our industry struggling to achieve a gender-equal workplace?
Gender equality means having equal opportunities available to you, whatever your gender.
A simple definition, yes, but not so simple to achieve.
That’s because the problem is the product of many years of seen and unseen imbalances that have encouraged men to pursue STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) careers whilst simultaneously forming barriers against women doing the same.
Right from those science lessons at school when your teacher was more likely to call upon boys than girls; an example of unconscious bias that compounds the situation. Girls are also less likely to understand what careers are open to them from studying sciences, so disregard STEM subjects too readily. It’s resulted in a marked difference between the proportion of STEM A-level subjects studied by girls in 2017 (27%) compared to 46% of boys’ A level entries. Year on year, this inevitably results in an imbalanced workforce.
So, what is the problem?
Engineering and construction in general lag behind other sectors in achieving gender equality.
According to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM, the STEM workforce is less diverse (both in terms of gender and ethnicity) than the wider UK workforce. Only 14.5% of engineers are women, whereas a more balanced 48% of NHS doctors are women. And the gender pay gap between men and women in the real estate and built environment sector has widened by 10% since 2019.
Inequality narrows the field
When a male manager, who subconsciously perceives that men work harder than women, hires a male applicant to fill a position even though the female applicant was better, the cycle of inequality persists. A lack of female representation is a self-perpetuating problem because by narrowing its field of search, the sector is unwittingly missing out on recruiting quality candidates from nearly 50% of the potential workforce.
Inequality leads to a culture that doesn’t value women
Female employees within the sector are less likely to stick around in an environment that doesn’t treat them fairly. More than two-thirds of women in the construction industry (79%) have experienced gender discrimination in the workplace.
Inequality leads to an imbalance at the top
Beyond the obvious issue of unfairness, the lack of diversity within the boardroom inevitably leads to narrowed perspectives and limited problem-solving. The lack of women also does nothing to inspire other women to push ahead for senior positions.
At the turn of the millennium, only 7% of directors on FTSE 100 boards were women. Encouragingly, twenty years on, the Female FTSE Board Report 2020 revealed that that figure had risen to 34.5%.
There are further signs of progress on this front. The Hampton-Alexander Review on FTSE Women Leaders in the UK (2021) shows that there are now zero all-male boards within the FTSE250, down from 152 in 2011.
What can businesses do to encourage equality?
Founded by Laura Dunlop, at GLD we’re well aware of the invisible barriers that women face in the sector. And we’re convinced that the private sector has a powerful role in taking active steps towards a more gender-balanced engineering and construction sector. Change happens when enough people decide it matters. What is needed is a sustained effort.
Strive to achieve gender-equal board representation
When female graduates in your organisation look up at their senior management team, what do they see?
The Hampton-Alexander Review reported encouraging figures indeed. But, there is more to be done. Representation is still not equal, and to overcome unconscious bias we must proactively encourage female employees to push for promotion through the ranks and to take up board positions. Something particularly important, given that women are less inclined to self-promote than men with the same skills and experience.
Run a Mentor Programme
One way to proactively encourage female employees is to instill a culture of mentorship within your team; something that has two significant benefits.
Firstly, it strengthens connections between junior staff and those senior female colleagues that have made it to senior positions. Learning from those women that have been there longer will address the perceived lack of female leaders to look up to and inspires others that they can get there too.
Secondly – and this is important – it’s not just the senior female colleagues that should be involved in pushing on and promoting junior female employees: senior male colleagues must also step up to actively support female staff who are earlier on in their career.
“Without senior male staff input in mentor programmes, we will never be able to break the unconscious bias cycle. Senior male staff need to support and promote female colleagues to set an example to other staff – male and female. The shift needs to start with the many and not the few.” – Laura Dunlop, GLD Founder
A mentor programme is invaluable to retaining and building up a diverse workforce that has the confidence to grow in their career, challenge the status quo and stick with it through ups and downs.
So, leverage the influence of your senior staff – male and female – to inspire and encourage your junior staff members and the impact will be powerful.
Training to eradicate unconscious bias
Beyond mentoring, company-wide training programmes that address unconscious bias will help all staff members to acknowledge and understand the problem and give them the tools they need to make changes to their own behaviour. Training across the board puts everyone on the same page when it comes to identifying and calling out bias, and will help bring about a culture shift in the way that we treat and speak to others – as well as how we view ourselves.
As part of this, companies can take the opportunity to review company policies and procedures on discrimination to ensure that unconscious bias in the workplace is formally acknowledged in company policy. Good policies should put in place best practice on what to do when colleagues are unfairly treated (whether consciously or unconsciously) including what steps are open to staff who have been unfairly treated.
Establish a pay policy
The gender pay gap stubbornly remains one of the biggest issues holding women back. The latest Macdonald & Company survey showed a disappointing increase in the pay gap since 2019. Male salaries in the real estate and built environment sector are, on average, an astonishing 30% bigger than their female counterparts.
Organisations in the sector must stand in solidarity with their female colleagues tackling pay imbalances head-on. Companies can assess their pay structures and make sure that no disparities exist between men and women working equivalent roles. There is no excuse not to.
Embrace a culture of Flexible working
After nearly 18 months of enforced home-working for many workers within the sector, the pandemic has opened the door to a more flexible way of working. Now is the moment of truth: will flexible work be embraced and supported or will pressure build to get workers “back” to the office?
Women are still typically more likely to benefit from flexible working patterns to accommodate the additional demands of childcare. Now is the perfect opportunity to formalise policies that protect flexible working rights so everyone can have the confidence to lean into their careers without having to sacrifice home commitments.
Not just for boys
The construction industry is not just for boys and it’s plain to us that a more gender-diverse workplace benefits the industry as a whole immensely. A more diverse workplace will mean a stronger one; one that not only welcomes everyone but brings together different perspectives and is better at problem-solving.
So, let’s dig deep and keep pressing on to achieve gender equality across the property and construction sector.