The UK construction industry is growing faster than any other major sector, while also suffering from a skills shortage.
With many seasoned workers retiring and a lack of new workers joining the industry, there is a real need to expand the sector’s recruitment drive.
Given the situation, you’d think this presents the perfect opportunity to welcome a new influx of female workers to fill the employment gap.
So the question remains: why are there so few women working in construction; and what can be done to change this?
To get to the bottom of this we need to go way back to the 17th century.
During this period masonry, carpentry and other trades were exclusively male professions. Young men would join the industry through apprenticeships which forbade them to marry during their training.
This period of training was considered to be developmental for young men, allowing them to transition to adulthood. The presence of women in this environment would have been seen as taboo.
However, women did still have a role in the trades, just not through male apprenticeships.
The women who worked in construction were those who had lost a husband and thus needed to support themselves; they might take over the business or work independently.
It wasn’t until the early nineteenth century when there were changes to the construction laws, that women began to find themselves increasingly excluded from this working environment.
Jump to the 21st century and there is still a strong association between the construction industry and masculinity. As a space that had become so closely tied to male identity, it has been particularly difficult to break down these associations.
Even today, where other workplaces have changed, the construction site is still highly male-dominated.
If you’re interested to find out more about the history of women in trade, we found this essay on how women’s roles in construction have changed to be very interesting.
The social stigma associated with women working in construction is closely tied to historic attitudes. Unfortunately despite big steps forward, sexism and misogyny are still present among construction workers.
In a 2019 report, it was found that 41% of female construction workers received inappropriate comments from male colleagues, while 72% of women received discrimination in the workplace.
This kind of unpleasant behaviour is a major disincentive for women. Even relatively “mild” abuse, often shrugged off as banter, contributes to a toxic work environment and can put off those who might otherwise be interested in a career in construction.
These attitudes are not just confined to the workplace. Unfortunately, the situation is endemic. Even when women do choose to train as tradespeople there is a stigma associated, including unfair perceptions that it makes them somehow less feminine.
Women are often forced to fit into the male work culture rather than being allowed to fully express themselves. Signs of femininity are criticised or banned as they are (falsely) perceived to reduce a person's ability to do their job.
Furthermore, many women feel that they have to fight a daily battle to prove themselves and win over their male colleagues.
These attitudes are so pervasive that women often self-police, encouraging those who might otherwise be interested in a career in construction to choose another profession. This is even the case in schools where trade-based careers are often not advertised to young women.
A major contributor to the lack of women in construction is down to training and educational opportunities. It can be difficult to get involved without a clear path to follow.
It is still the case that in many schools, women are not encouraged to explore a career in construction but are pointed towards other opportunities. In fact, a recent study by Local Heroes found that just 13% of primary school girls aged 6-11 consider a role in the trades as a potential career.
Although the opportunities further up the funnel are vastly improved compared to even 10 years ago, with organisations such as Women into Construction doing great work to increase female numbers, there is still a cultural lag at the grassroots level, with girls not aware of the opportunities available to them.
Women face a number of different barriers when considering joining the industry. As we’ve touched on, many of these are linked to cultural and historic attitudes that are still influential in the industry today - but there are other issues that also put women off.
The most commonly quoted problem and the issue that some men like to hang their hats on is that physiological differences mean women are unsuited to jobs on a construction site.
In some instances, this might be the case, but most of the time this is just a convenient excuse people use to hide behind.
It is true that having greater strength and endurance does make it easy to complete certain tasks on a site. For some women, the physical demands might be off-putting.
However, in this day and age, there are plenty of tools that essentially negate this problem as a credible issue.
This is a genuine problem for women working on construction sites. It is not uncommon for there to be no ladies' toilets available.
In fact, a survey by the construction union Unite found that 1 in 5 sites require women to share toilet facilities with men. Furthermore, 10% of sites do not supply toilet paper, and for sites with showers, 16% have no separate showers for women.
This makes it a real challenge for women on site. In one instance a female construction worker on a site in Australia found there were no toilets at all. The male workers were able to urinate in the bushes but she really struggled, having to reduce her water intake instead while working in hot conditions.
The problem is further exacerbated due to the fact that there are often no safe spaces women can use for feminine hygiene. When menstruating, women often have to use custom underwear or other products to try and deal with the problem.
This can be unhygienic and incredibly stressful for women on their period.
One issue that is a problem for many women is the unavailability of well-fitting specialist clothing. Overalls, jackets, trousers and general work gear are designed for male bodies and even when women can get smaller sizes these are not designed to fit optimally on the female body.
Female workers are often forced to wear clothes that aren’t as comfortable and that can even, in some instances, impede their ability to work. Even items such as work boots can be difficult to come by as these are generally produced primarily for men.
Even something like a helmet can be a problem if it isn’t fitted to be worn with longer hair.
It may seem minor, but the ability for a person to make themself look nice and feel good about their appearance when they go to work is important and contributes to good general mental health.
For female construction workers who use makeup, it is not uncommon to receive pushback and unwelcome comments from male workers who consider these kinds of products to be out of place.
On a positive note, change is happening.
In the last 10 years, the number of women taking up the tools has increased by 120%. In fact, the number of women working in all trades has steadily been increasing year on year, and construction has some of the highest numbers.
You can find out more about how different trade careers compare for female representation in our blog on the best trade jobs for women.
Despite the growth in numbers, there is still a lot of work to be done. The good news is there are plenty of actionable steps that can be taken to welcome female construction workers..
The first thing to do is to address the issues that have been highlighted above. Children of all genders need to be educated on the fantastic opportunities that are available to those who enter the construction industry.
Schools need to provide the resources and encouragement for young women to learn about the industry and pursue a career in it. This includes highlighting the history of women in construction and celebrating the contributions women have made.
Following this, girls need role models and figures they can look up to and aspire to be. The more young women see other female construction workers in these jobs the easier it becomes to imagine themselves doing the same thing.
For example in the welding industry pioneering female welders such as Florence Collard, who was the first woman to be granted membership to the Boilermaker's Society Union, are setting an example for those that follow. Find out more in this great blog on women in welding.
There also need to be practical changes: female toilets, sanitary bins and showers for women. Equipment needs to be designed and provided for working women.
Perhaps most importantly, all of us, regardless of gender or profession, need to change the way we talk about construction.
We need to work towards building an environment where female workers feel welcomed and supported so that construction is no longer considered to be a male-only profession.
When we consider the complete picture, the reason there are so few women working in the construction industry is due to social stigma.
Although there are real barriers to entry, such as the physical nature of the job and a lack of suitable tools designed for women, these are issues that can be overcome with the right investment and a change of approach in the industry.
If women are made to feel comfortable and provided the right opportunities and support, there is no reason they cannot thrive as they contribute to a female revolution that might just be a lifeline for a struggling industry.
If you're interested to find out more about some of these issues, check out our podcast episode where we chat to Cathy Cockin, a female electrician and business owner, covering topics on success sexism and empowerment for female tradespeople.
According to the latest available data from the Office for National Statistics, as of 2020, women make up just 14.5% of the construction workforce in the UK. This figure has been gradually increasing, up from 12.8% in 2015, but there is still much work to be done to achieve gender parity in the industry.
The construction industry is still a highly male-dominated sector, with women making up just 10.3% of the US workforce (based on 2021 data from the National Women's Law Center). In the UK men make up over 85% of the workforce, with just 1% of women working in manual trades. Although the landscape is changing with more women joining the industry every year, women are still very much the minority.
Women are still underrepresented in the construction industry making up less than 15% of the 2.69 million who work in the sector. Within that, women are further underrepresented in leadership positions, making up only 17% of directors and 5% of senior directors in the UK. Efforts are being made to address this issue, but female representation is still far behind where it needs to be.
Only 3.4% of builders in the UK are female, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics in 2020. While this figure has increased from 2.6% in 2015, more work is needed to achieve gender equality in this profession.