June 23, 2023

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Women in health and safety

Moving forward

On International Women in Engineering Day, Beth Holroyd says more needs to be done before we see true equality in our own sectors.

Beth Holroyd is UK Health & Safety Business Partner – Local Government at WSP

Before transitioning to a career in construction health and safety, I spent nearly 10 years working in civil engineering. As such, I felt I had to get involved in 2023’s International Women in Engineering Day, particularly as #makesafetyseen is this year’s theme. I have always been incredibly passionate about promoting construction industry roles to women and was delighted that the Women’s Engineering Society asked if I could be an official ambassador for this special day.

Women have been ushered away from what has been perceived as traditional male roles for years. In 1919, the Women’s Engineering Society was created after World War One, when women successfully worked in engineering and technical roles as part of the country’s war effort. Within health and safety, the original factory inspectors were recruited under the Factories Act in 1833, but it took another 60 years before two women were recruited into these roles. Even then, their focus was only on women’s working hours and safety within laundries.
Today, the number of females entering traditionally male roles is rising. However, having friendly banter on a construction site is one thing, but like many others, I’ve been discouraged from a role in the industry and have faced criticism, and hostility and received derogatory comments online, on-site and in the office.

People say these roles should be made attractive to boys too. Thankfully, this group is already encouraged to join the industry and as a mother to a son I’m pleased about this; career opportunities in the construction industry should be promoted to everyone, equally. But the truth is, for years it hasn’t been.

“But what about men who want to do hair and beauty?” Unfortunately, I often hear this comment in response to my and others’ arguments, and – sarcastic or not – I find it extremely reductive. It diminishes the conversation by highlighting the lack of diversity in another sector, and that really isn’t the point.

For the record, despite 86% of the hairdressers being female, many of the top hairdressers are male.

Experience doesn’t always count

The industry is facing a skills shortage. According to a report from the Construction Skills Network, it is estimated that the built environment requires an additional 225,000 workers to meet the demands of the UK sector by 2027. To meet this shortfall, we need to ensure as an industry we are attracting as much talent as possible – regardless of gender. Outdated views and bias towards the kinds of faces we’re used to seeing the need to be quashed in favour of recruiting talented individuals to fill these requirements.

Often, women’s CVs lack the same level of experience as their male counterparts. As such, I think it’s important that organisations look beyond experience. Perhaps someone who is less technical has other skills they can bring. Consider hiring for the future, and think about the potential someone has to develop into a role, as technical training can be undertaken but there are some skills that cannot be taught.

Missing the target

Are targets around gender balance the best way forward? I’d argue not, and whilst I acknowledge that these targets stem from a good place, the industry is at an uneven male/female gender split and if we’re honest, a 50/50 split probably isn’t going to be achievable right now within some space based on the industries demographic.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be aiming for more diversity in teams though, a more diverse workforce will always bring new thoughts and ideas to the table, and it’s important that those voices are heard. Importantly, women don’t want to be recruited for a role just to meet a target, and that’s the truth. We already wrestle with the feeling that we have to prove ourselves to deserve to be there anyway, never mind dealing with potential resentment because we’re a diversity hire.

Beyond bias

Beth spoke at her old school to educate about the roles for women in the industry

I remember back to being a nervous 15-year-old, heading to college for the first time – and, having attended an all-girls school, quickly realising I was one of three females in my first year, and then the only girl in my Apprenticeship and Higher National Certificate classes.

For years I never understood why diversity mattered so much, then one day it clicked: so many women have missed out over the years because of a lack of education about what roles are available to them because of bias. I want all girls to feel safe and welcome in our sector, and not feel like they must list off their CVs at every conversation to prove they belong.

Three and half years ago, I was hired as a health and safety advisor with no specific health and safety qualifications or experience. However, what came across to my now line manager was my passion and ability to connect with people – everything else could be trained. Now I support almost 700 staff across the UK at an operational and strategic level and have completed my diploma and obtained chartership with IOSH.

I hope this year’s International Women in Engineering Day inspires others to achieve, thrive and enjoy their career be it engineering, construction or health and safety – or indeed, in any workplace.

You can read another article from Beth on female representation, written for SHP, here.

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