Despite a clear business case for a more diverse workforce, the industry still lacks the understanding and leadership required to address inequality; so was the conclusion of a recent high-level discussion, attended by well-known champions of diversity in construction.
Brought together to form the UK Construction Week Diversity Advisory Group, the panel confronted the major barriers and challenges the industry faces in bridging the diversity gap. With a firm commitment to encouraging the cultural shift that is much needed in the industry, the lessons learned from the panel discussion will shape the agenda for the event in October – ensuring that construction professionals at all levels are equipped to embrace diversity and other challenges, turning them instead into positive opportunities.
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Two interesting schools of thought emerged, around tackling the issue at grassroots versus leadership from the top. Much of the discussion centred around reputation and the difficulties we face in attracting any youngsters into the construction industry – and particularly girls and ethnic minorities.
Sarah Davis, CEO, Skills4Stem Ltd felt that we needed to start early – at the age of five or six, when children are first gaining an opinion on what they want to be when they grow up. “Parents are also hugely influential at this stage and the problem we face is that few will encourage their children to aspire to a career in construction. We need to also educate the parents.”
The teachers too, it seems. The panel chair, Bridget Bartlett, Deputy Chief Executive of the CIOB, cited poor careers guidance as another limiting factor and felt more needed to be done by the industry to educate and excite youngsters about a career in construction. Although there are some fantastic examples of the construction industry engaging with children, with a host of wide-ranging ideas, it was agreed that it was generally pockets of activity.
In fact, fragmentation is possibly one of the biggest problems. It was clear from those just around the table itself that there are a huge number of associations, working groups and campaigns all working towards the same goals. Girls schools are almost inundated with well-meaning gender diversity initiatives, for example, and don’t actually know which way to turn.
Caroline Buckingham, Director HLM & RIBA Vice President Practice & Profession, even questioned whether ‘women’ orientated groups were actually detrimental? “Events that focus on women talking to women, I’m just not sure they do us any good. I don’t want to be a role model for just women, I want to be a role model for everybody.”
“It’s about time we stopped re-inventing the wheel,” challenged Denise Bower, Executive Director, Major Projects Association. There are 49 different professional bodies in the construction industry and this proliferation of initiatives, all aiming to achieve the same thing, in a slightly different way, means that they are ineffective overall.
However, Dr Nelson Ogunshakin, CEO of ACE, felt that effort at grassroots level was actually futile and what the industry really needed was stronger leadership and commitment from the top. “We talk the talk but we don’t walk the walk. We need to see a proper commitment at board level to reach minimum requirements and demonstrate on-going progression in terms of the level of women, ethnic minorities, disabled and gay people represented at all levels. This needs to filter across into the procurement process and be a contractual demand of our supply chain too.”
Having a more balanced representation at board level is a crucial part of this. “You come in, you look up – and all you see are 50 year old white males,” says Bridget Bartlett.
Companies should place an importance on sponsors and mentors, as they both have an important role to play. “I actually think that a sponsor should be the 50 year old, white male, as their role is to champion you and they are most likely to have the influence and speak the right language to help you up the ladder,” suggested Sarah Davies. “Whereas a mentor should be someone who has a greater understanding of the challenges you face personally – so a female should have a female mentor, for example.”
When it comes to promoting role models, we also shouldn’t focus just on the people who have made it to the top. “Rising stars have a crucial role to play when it comes to engaging younger people,” said Siobhan McMahon, Director of Emerald Architects Ltd and National Chair for National Association of Women in Construction. “They can almost ‘touch’ that success and are therefore more motivated as it seems more achievable”
The panel concluded that UK Construction Week could provide a fantastic opportunity for organisations to come together and strengthen the currently fragmented approach.
Richard Morey, Group Events Director at Media 10, the company behind UK Construction Week, commented: “The discussion highlighted a need for the industry to come together and start tackling the issue of diversity as one. There are some great initiatives and some leading thinkers in the area but we’ve still got a long way to go.
“I think UK Construction Week could play a pivotal role, in providing a platform for those that are making great strides in balancing out inequality in our industry, to demonstrate best practice and inspire others. I think we should also use it as an opportunity, to challenge business leaders to make that commitment to achieving minimum requirements and demonstrating on-going progression, as was so passionately called for in today’s discussion.
Taking place at the Birmingham NEC from 18 – 20 October, UK Construction Week combines nine shows in one location. With over 24,000 trade visitors last year, the show boasts over 1,000 exhibitors. Visitors are able to attend the Build Show, Civils Expo, Timber Expo, the Surface and Materials Show, Energy 2016, Plant & Machinery Live, HVAC 2016, Smart Buildings 2016 and Grand Designs Live.