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Where are all the women on the tools? | Construction Buzz #207

07 Mar 2019


Women are grossly underrepresented in skilled manual construction roles. Neil Gerrard asks what can be done to boost the number of ‘women on the tools’.

Nowhere is it more obvious that women are underrepresented in the construc-tion industry than at ground level, on the sites themselves.

Only 14.5% of the construction workforce as a whole is female, but shockingly that drops to just 2% when it comes to skilled manual trades, according to CITB figures. That’s a number that has changed little since 2014 and lags well behind the rest of the economy. Across all industries in 2017, 39% of manual workers in the UK were female.

While several larger employers are making efforts to redress the balance, there are still very few “women on the tools”. Ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March, CM asks why the number of females in skilled trades positions is so low – and what is being done to change this?

Employing more women on site ought to be a “no-brainer”, particularly given the industry’s much-publicised skills shortage. “A diverse team is more profitable, more innovative and happier,” asserts Rebecca Thompson, CIOB past president 2017/18 and founder of Thompson Heritage Consultancy.


“If you think about how much labour in construction comes through the agencies, and they are saying they can’t take females on, then we definitely have a problem.”

Jean Duprez, Women into Construction

The heritage sector bucks the wider industry trend. “Female representation among manual workers during the £20m restoration of York Minster was an impressive 40%,” notes Thompson. Meanwhile, one in six joiners, one in three glaziers, and 25% of stonemasons at the £12.4m restoration of Lincoln Cathedral under main contractor William Birch & Sons were women.

Thompson thinks that the way in which employers communicate about site-based opportunities is key when it comes to attracting women. “Employers need to soften the language they use, and that is not just for women but when considering diversity in every respect,” she says.

Hand-in-hand with that goes the creation of a more welcoming team ethos on site, while Thompson also highlights the importance of providing better welfare facilities in order to entice more female workers into manual trades – an issue that contractors like Multiplex are now trying to address (see box, p16).

Campaign group Women and Manual Trades (WMT), formerly known as Women on the Tools, wants more effort in engaging women in the manual trades sector of the industry. Part of social housing procurement body Procure Plus, WMT argues that women are generally keen to know more about skilled trade careers in construction when it is presented as an option.

“We’re calling for employers to be braver, ring-fencing apprenticeship roles for women, or guaranteeing interviews for female applicants,” says Mike Brogan, chief executive of Procure Plus. “We have been working with employers and colleges to help them reach women who are keen to take up such roles.”

As part of this, WMT has devised the 3:2 initiative, which is designed to secure students studying a trade paid work experience in construction on the two days a week they have free from college, to help them build their confidence about working in the sector. Contractors including Connolly, Dodd Group, Emanuel Whittaker, Jackson & Jackson and the Casey Group are supporting the scheme.

But encouraging more women into manual trades involves more than just targeting the employers and educators, says Jean Duprez, director of Duprez Consulting and Women Into Construction.


She worries that labour agencies, which contractors rely on heavily, discourage women from coming onto their books because they don’t regard the construction environment as suitable for women.

“A rising female star of one of the pre-employment programmes I work on was rejected by one of these employment agencies,” Duprez says.

“If you think about how much labour in construction comes through the agencies, and they are saying they can’t take females on, then we definitely have a problem.”

Duprez says that there needs to be more governance of employment agencies to ensure that they provide a minimum proportion of female workers to industry, advocating the creation of a kitemark-style scheme to show that agencies comply with minimum standards.

While construction has recently began waking up to the lack of diversity in the industry, and the shortcomings it leads to, there is clearly still a long way to go before women on the tools start to be regarded as the norm on sites.

Donna’s story

Donna Lister as worked as a self-employed domestic electrician for 12 years


“After over 15 years in the voluntary sector, I wanted to do something different. I asked my electrician if I 
could shadow him. I enjoyed the variety of the work and was encouraged when he said I had potential.

“I quit my job and enrolled on a two-year part-time City and Guilds course at my local college. It took some months but I eventually found another electrician to take me on as a part-time apprentice. It just so happened she was another woman.

“When looking for my first job, I found it hard to get anyone to take me seriously. When I had my interview at college, the tutor thought I was the girlfriend of one of the other students and had come along to show support.

“Determination helps a lot. Plus being connected to a small but amazing network of female electricians. In fact, many of my clients choose me because I am female.”

Wendy’s story

womenWendy Gill has worked as a self-employed tiler for 10 years

“I spent 10 years in an office-based role but I couldn’t shake off the feeling of dissatisfaction.

“I had already completed a basic tiling course so I thought I might as well try my luck with that.

“I was really surprised at the response I received and wondered if there could be a place in the market for a female tiler.

“Fast forward a few years later, with a Tiling NVQ level 2 qualification, a van and a website under my belt, I’m finally feeling a sense of satisfaction.

“It’s definitely a challenge overcoming the stereotypical views associated with a woman doing what’s perceived to be a ‘man’s role’.

“Teaming up with other trades-women is beneficial, particularly on larger projects. We like to think we bring a fresh approach to bathroom design and the domestic bathroom fitting industry.”

Source: Construction Manager

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