When you think of an industry dominated by men, which industry do you think of? Personally, we would say the construction industry. Why? Construction is a traditionally male dominated profession, and statistics compiled by GMB (the union for construction workers) indicate that the industry has remained resistant to change. Although surveys clearly show that more women have taken professional and managerial positions within the last few decades, only 1 in 8 (12.5%) construction workers are women, and these women are paid 12% less on average.
Before I go into women working specifically in the construction industry, I believe it’s vital to first demonstrate the progression, background and history of sexism within the construction industry.
History of women in the construction industry
We know women are capable of working in the construction industry, and can be exceptionally good at it. An extraordinary example of this would be the work done in World War 2, where the shortage of men of working age meant that women had to take on construction labour jobs. Incredible projects such as rebuilding Waterloo bridge, building ships, aeroplanes and much more were all carried out by a predominantly female workforce.
Even though this was born out of necessity it marked a huge step towards gender parity, equality and a brighter future for women. These jobs were often completed in less time than the men were previously allowed, yet women were still paid significantly less. Gender inequality wasn’t uncommon at the time of the war – in fact, it was so deeply ingrained that it went unquestioned.
This meant that even though women dominated the construction industry for a short amount of time and were heavily praised and honoured for their work, they were still discharged after peace was declared, and ejected back to their traditional, female, domestic jobs such as shop keeping or clerical work. While women were not allowed to take on strenuous construction jobs after the war, they were often ‘allowed’ to take part in small construction jobs, though this was still on lower pay, as women were simply not accepted by men in the trade unions.
As a result of this, semi-skilled men were then promoted ahead of women, making any career progression impossible. Here is an example of their restrictions that women had to face:
Thankfully for women, the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 (later being replaced by the 2010 equality act) provided a basis for women to work equitably in the construction industry, which is why they have the option to do so today.
Women no longer had to accept mistreatment due to their gender, and were allowed to work in construction beside their male counterparts. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that discrimination and sexism doesn’t occur today.
Distinguishing between a ‘male’ role and a ‘female’ role – Tough boys and caring girls
When we say distinguishing between male and female roles, we mean when the characteristics of masculinity and/or femininity displayed. These stigmas around gender roles can be socially determined subconsciously from a young age. Moreover, it is recognised that we may learn about these ideas of gender roles in school, which are then reinforced and influenced further by parents, teachers, news articles and the mass media. As such, it’s possible that our types of career choices may be socially constructed, and subtly shaped from a young age.
For example, men may be perceived as independent and directive, and women as unambitious and emotional – Where did this come from? Maybe the toys we played with as children? After all, there are specific toys made for girls and boys. Everyone knows girls get bought dolls, where they can care for them, dress them and nurture them – whereas boys get toys to build and fight with, things like Lego, cars and action figures. Some adults even forbid their boys from playing with feminine toys to shield them from femininity when growing up.
Why is femininity considered a weakness? As we grow into adults, this childhood behaviour turns into an unconscious bias. We internalise this belief that certain behaviour is expected of women and men, causing us to suppress what we really want to do, and stick with the way we have learnt how to do things.
Language in the construction industry
Another barrier to women comes in the form of workplace culture. It has been found that the construction industry often forms competitive power structures where women’s contributions are being marginalised. At its worst, this can lead to women facing discriminatory behaviour, which is reinforced in everyday humour such as ‘stop being a girl’ or ‘man up’.
Some women feel that they could be objectified by their bodies within the construction industry, feel undermined from men and not be taken seriously. This can be displayed in the use of language on construction sites; demeaning names such as ‘good girl’, ‘sweetie’ and ‘honey’ can irritate women, as it confirms an unconscious sexist bias. . Slurs such as ‘diva, ‘hormonal’ or ‘drama queen’ can also be used to objectify women, and are specifically aimed at perpetuating female stereotypes.
This manber of treatment towards women isn’t unique to the construction industry. However, the industry certainly has a particularly bad reputation – women in construction have said that they hear these sexist jabs 4 times a day on average. These slurs can make women feel inadequate and lesser to others, and influence other members of staff to treat them as such.
Women are often perceived as the weaker sex, and this can influence men to call each other names referring them to being feminine or sensitive, strengthening men’s biases about women,. This can also have a negative effect on women who want to work in the construction industry, as the feeling of being undermined and seen as lesser to the men can affect their wellbeing during work.
What may be stopping women getting employed and in and joining the construction industry – Advertisement
Looking more into why the construction industry is stereotyped as a male industry, I gathered that there are plenty of signs in the UK that suggest only men work on construction sites, even if women are also there. Even though advertisements in the 21st century for construction aren’t actively degrading, they still tend to uphold old stereotypes, and maintain a very ‘male only’ tone. This is even reinforced by the language we use to define roles, with advertisements specifically asking for a ‘handyman’. This continues to uphold the reputation of women being a minority and under-represented within the construction industry, which in turn makes it a less appealing career.
There is some positive news, though. Colleges, universities and schools are now actively starting to encourage girls to join the constructive industry, and show them what options are available. The hashtag #notjustforboys is widely being shared in 2021, giving women in male-dominated industries a platform, and positively shaping the future for girls in construction and beyond.
Gender pay gap – women are paid on average 38% less than men
Construction is one of the top sectors in terms of the gender pay gap, paying women 38% less on average than men. This highlights a particular disparity in terms of construction industry bosses, as this is where the highest wages are skewed. And it’s these bosses who make decisions on hiring and workplace culture – potentially impeding women’s progress in the industry.
Different types of jobs in the construction industry – It’s not all heavy lifting!
The construction industry is more than what you see on a typical building site. Construction is essential to designing and building the ‘built’ environment around us, and the many small details we take for granted. Here are just a few of the jobs in the construction industry.
Architects: design and plan buildings
Building services engineers: that everything in the interior of the building is working, e.g. lighting, power, ventilation, water systems and so on.
Building surveyors: These people provide technical advice, which includes reporting on a building’s condition and pointing out any repairs in the building that need doing, and the cost of doing them.
Civil, structural and geotechnical engineers: ensure that project designs are going to work and ar4e implemented properly.
Landscape architects: design and create public areas in towns, county sides and cities.
Quantity surveyors: are involved in finding out how much a project is going to cost to build.
Site managers: ensure things are getting completed on a construction site within budget and to a high standard.
Working in a construction trade or craft: this includes your classic ‘hard labour’ jobs such as carpentry, joinery, painting & decorating, plumbing, scaffolding etc.
Why more women should be more involved in the construction industry
If more women join the construction industry, this will slowly eliminate sexist about women, provide new perspectives and ideas, and begin to make more structural changes through managerial positions.
Women will have a higher potential of being employed and promoted, and those joining the construction industry will forge a new image: as strong, determined, powerful, and – dare I say it – ‘manly’. The pay gap will steadily dissolve, and we can create a reformed and more optimistic future for girls of all ages.
We’re in this together. Construction is NOT #justforboys.