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November 10, 2010

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Construction – Equality street

The introduction last month of the new Equality Act has, among other things, extended positive-action provision, provided more protection from dual discrimination, and set out pay-transparency rules. Against this backdrop, Chrissi McCarthy explores the role of women in construction and why the industry’s health and safety record could be improved by attracting more into the profession.

The new Equality Act, which came into force on 1 October, aims to simplify the nine main pieces of legislation surrounding equality and diversity, bringing them together under one document.1 Still one of the least diverse sectors in the UK, the construction industry is dominated by an ageing white male workforce. In fact, only 13.5 per cent of the workforce is female, compared with 46 per cent of the working population. Even those women working in the sector are rarely used to full advantage, with more than 80 per cent of them employed in administrative and clerical roles.2
In a study for the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), Gurajo found that the industry suffers from a ‘leaky-pipe syndrome’, where women are found to be leaving the industry in large numbers at disproportionate times throughout their careers.3 She also found that the main reasons women leave are workplace culture, discrimination, and lack of opportunity.

As supported by workplace-injury and fatality statistics, it’s an industry that also needs to improve its health and safety record. Indeed, while recent reports have praised the industry for its falling rates of death and reportable injuries, they are still among the highest for a major sector.

So what effect, if any, do these two areas have on each other? Gender and diversity are not usually considered alongside health and safety, but maybe they should be.

Why is the industry in this state?

The reasons behind the low representation of women in the construction industry are many and complex, and vary according to role, sector, position and organisation type.4 Such factors have a link to health and safety, but other areas, such as stereotyping and poor careers advice and education, to name but a few, also play a large part in this process.

While women in professional roles in construction tend to drop off along their career path, mainly owing to workplace culture, the trade end of the industry, which is predominantly made up of firms of fewer than 10 people, rarely employ women in the first place, on account of a perceived increase in risk. Most of the barriers outlined below are unlikely to cause women to leave the industry, but may make employers think twice about employing them.

1     Barrier: inappropriate PPE and clothing – The industry’s male dominance means that most PPE is still designed for men. The main offenders are: items bought in bulk, such as hi-vis vests, which can snag on rebar, causing falls; gloves, which, if oversized, can cause the wearer to lose their dexterity; and boots, which are often too wide and can lead to missed footing on ladders.

Solution and benefits – Specific suppliers of women’s PPE often make deals with larger firms, so such equipment should not cost employers more money. It is not only women who would benefit from such PPE but smaller male workers too, with the end result being improved health and safety and increased productivity.

2     Barrier: Workplace culture – This is such a wide area in construction and can include male dominance, macho image, sexual harassment, discrimination and isolation, depending on the site. Repeated exposure to discriminating behaviour is likely to manifest itself in terms of workplace stress. This is, by far, the most serious health hazard for women working in construction today and needs the considered support of employers to ensure it is avoided.

Solution and benefits – Work towards changing your organisational culture by engaging with your employees and then drawing up a diversity strategy (see below for more pointers on this). If an effective strategy is implemented, not only should you see a rise in diversity, productivity and professionalism but you will also gain an advantage when it comes to winning tenders.

3     Barrier: COSHH – Pregnant women and those under the age of 18 are affected differently by certain substances, so this should be made clear, and understood, when completing COSHH assessments.

Solution and benefits – When drawing up policy and safety guidelines, set them at the requirement for women and young children. This will keep your entire workforce even safer and, if you need to go over the limit, you can risk-assess based on individuals’ age, health and gender.

4     Barrier: Plant and equipment – Designed to be used by average-sized men, the issue here is that the average-sized woman has a hand length that is 0.8 inches shorter, so tools, such as pliers, have too thick a grip, which results in inappropriate placement and loss of functionality. Women also have less upper-body strength, meaning they often need to adopt different ways of working to suit their abilities.

Solution and benefits – Thought should be given to manual-handling techniques to see if they are suited to men, women, or both. Employ a mentor to help new recruits with similar physical abilities learn the most suitable ways in which they can carry out their roles without risking injury. The mentoring approach can apply to men, too, so not only will new recruits learn best practice but the more experienced mentors will be able to pass on knowledge and gain additional motivational skills.

5     Barrier: Health and safety training – Women often suffer from over-protection on construction sites, where managers, in an attempt to “do the right thing”, avoid exposing women to all aspects of a job. Not only can this be detrimental to physiological heath by creating barriers to progression it can also mean that women miss out on valuable site-safety training, causing gaps in their knowledge.

Solutions and benefits – There should be a structured training programme that all employees must follow, with regular appraisals undertaken to check progress. This should ensure all your staff have a rounded skills set, and enable you to monitor any gaps in your employees’ knowledge.

Benefits for health and safety

There has been a lot of recent research into the positive effects of a diverse workforce, notably a report this year by the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC), which highlights the main areas that can benefit from increasing the gender balance.5 If we consider some of these in terms of health and safety at a strategic, tactical and operational level we can start to see a picture of how the industry might benefit from a more diverse workforce.

Employer of choice – The image of the construction industry needs serious improvement if it is to attract and retain the best talent in the future. There is a current shortage of skilled employees, and one of the reasons why some job-seekers avoid construction is the lack of diversity and the macho image that prevails. This, in turn, has a detrimental effect on how the industry is viewed professionally.

By understanding what today’s talent wants from a job and a career, the construction industry and individual companies can make themselves the employers of choice for the best women and men. Obviously, by having the best people, they can be employed to ensure the best health and safety procedures and practice are in place.

The annual CIOB survey found that around 70 per cent of respondents still found it difficult to recruit suitable staff, even in the recession. Before the downturn, experts predicted the industry would need double the amount of entrants – an extra 40,000 per year – to meet the demand for work.6 By only appealing to half the talent pool, the industry will not be able to meet demand, putting existing staff under further stress by imposing longer hours and more responsibility.

Retain knowledge and experience – Construction is known for its high turnover of staff, but it doesn’t need to be. As an industry, it focuses mainly on pay as an incentive, compelling its workforce to long hours and lack of flexibility. This is at odds with a series of graduate surveys carried out in 2008, which found that work-life balance and training were most important in choosing an employer. By improving these conditions, we can expect to retain more staff. Although this might not seem important right now while the impact of the recession is rife, losing a large chunk of its knowledge base will have dire consequences for the industry’s ability to meet health, safety and quality standards when the order books start filling up.

Improve business performance – There is a growing body of research that shows diverse organisations are more productive and produce stronger profits. McKinsey found that companies with the highest levels of gender diversity out-performed other organisations in terms of return on equity, operating profit, and stock-price growth.7

To understand why this is important to health and safety, we need to look to Norway, which, in 2003, demanded that board representation for all public bodies must comprise a minimum of 40 per cent of each gender.8 This was a move that was deeply unpopular at the time; nevertheless, it has led to a growth in profit and productivity. Board members of Norwegian organisations interviewed in 2008 stated that the biggest thing they noticed was that men seemed to focus on the bottom line, whereas women were more interested in organisational practice and operations. It shouldn’t be too hard to work out which of these is better from a health and safety viewpoint.

Gender differences – The HSE found that men have a 75-per-cent higher chance of being involved in an injury at work. This seems extraordinary but, of course, men are usually employed in higher-risk activities. However, even when the HSE took this into account, the relative risk of injury was still 20-per-cent higher in men than women.9 This would suggest that by raising the number of women working on building sites, the number of accidents would reduce.

How to make change happen

Traditionally, equality and diversity have been treated as areas that can be dipped in and out of, with no real thought given to a structured process. You wouldn’t expect to introduce other new processes to your workforce without some element of change management, so why should equality and diversity be any different?
If you are serious about recruiting, retaining and developing more women in your organisation, the following step-by-step introductory guide should help:

1    Decide what you want to achieve and why. There are many reasons for diversifying, such as skills shortage, tender lists, or even lack of creativity. Write down your priorities for change and their motivating factors.

2    Let your employees know what you are planning to do and advise them of the steps you are taking, as well as the reasons why.

3    Analyse your current workforce. In which areas are you under-represented? In which areas would you like to increase representation? If you do not have the data, decide what you require and go out and collect it.

4    Once you know where you are and where you want to be, you need to find out how to get there. Don’t assume you know what the barriers are, or what your organisational culture looks like – and remember: it can change from site to office to regional area. This is often where organisations first fall down, leading them to fix things that are perceived but not real. Engage with your employees through a variety of routes to find out the barriers they have faced and how they have overcome them. Consider employing an external specialist to advise on how to engage with different groups to get the most from this exercise.

5    Develop a diversity strategy and action plan to retain, recruit and develop a more diverse workforce in your organisation. When compiling the plan, you should gain specialist help. This will also enable you to take advantage of best practice and understand cost implications, as well as which initiatives have short-term and long-term gains. While every organisation will have differing needs, it should, at a minimum, include training for line managers, mentoring, networking, support groups, and tracking.

6    Embed the plan. Responsibility should be assigned to a director, and it should be made clear what is now expected of employees. This is hugely important to the success of any diversity strategy, as employees will be more likely to take on new initiatives if they feel that their managers and directors support them.

7    Monitor and review your strategy at set intervals.

Final thoughts

In a recession it is often tempting to put equality and diversity to one side and focus on areas that provide short-term benefits instead. However, before you do, pause and take a look at the swathes of research that point to the myriad benefits to be gained from building a balanced workforce – from bottom lines to productivity, health and safety to low staff turnover – and ask yourself: can your business afford to ignore equality and diversity any longer?

1     The Equality Act –
2     De Graft-Johnson, A, Sara, R, Gleed, F and Brkljac, N (2009): Gathering and Reviewing Data on Diversity within the Construction Professions, University of the West of England, Bristol, Department of Architecture and Planning, Construction Industry Council (CIC)
3     Gurjao, S (2006): Inclusivity: The Changing Role of Women in the Construction Workforce, University of Reading, CIOB
4     English, J, Haupt, TC, Smallwood, JJ (2006): ‘Women, construction and health and safety (H&S): South African and Tanzanian perspectives’, Journal of Engineering, Design and Technology, vol.4 issue 1, pp18-28
5     UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC) –
6     Chartered Institute of Building (2009): Skills in the construction industry 2009 –
7     Meaney, M, Devillard-Hoellinger, S, Denari, A (2008): Room at the Top: Women and success in UK business, McKinsey & Company
8     For more information, go to
9     Key messages from the Labour Force Survey for injury risks: Gender and age, job tenure and part-time working –

Chrissi McCarthy is director of

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11 years ago

‘..the construction industry is dominated by an ageing white male workforce…’ That is sexist and ageist for starters dear person

I hanker after my days working in Moscow where we had women digging trenches in the streets!!! And they made the tea when told!!!!