This is not an issue for women – it’s an issue for everyone. Things are starting to change, but there is a long way to go, says Anna Beckett
During my time working in the construction industry, I have participated in several schemes designed to help schools improve their career programmes, particularly in relation to STEM. I have given talks, built structures from spaghetti, spoken to students in workshops and helped with mock university interviews.
While some of these events have been aimed at female students, I have tried to make sure that is not always the case.
I had particularly terrible careers advice at school. A career in engineering was never suggested to me, but I attended a girls’ school and as a result the idea that I might not do something because I was a girl had never even occurred to me.
For many girls this obviously is not the case, and in many science-based careers we are trying to encourage girls to enter the field while simultaneously telling them they are starting a career where they will be in the minority.
Imagine being a 15-year-old girl (easier for some of us than others) and someone trying to persuade you to start a career that will be dominated by men. It is a hugely daunting prospect. If I had not been quite so ignorant of that as a teenager, I don’t think I would have wanted to do it either.
The industry seems to be particularly bad at dealing with flexible working arrangements, which often impacts women more than it does men
On one occasion I spoke at a careers event at a boys school and received comments from several friends – “don’t you think you should be trying to help girls to do engineering?”, “don’t you think there are enough men in the construction industry?”.
Well, perhaps they are right. But, in my opinion, if a male student is inspired by a woman then, when he starts working in that industry, maybe his perception of the women around him is going to be different. It is just as important for boys to see a woman in that role as it is for girls.
I intentionally titled this piece “What’s stopping us from having a better gender balance?” rather than “What’s stopping us from getting more women into the construction industry?” because this is not an issue for women, it’s an issue for everyone.
In architecture and engineering the number of women entering the workplace is increasing, but we need to find ways to keep women in the construction industry – and allow them to progress so that the industry is more balanced at every level.
The industry seems to be particularly bad at dealing with flexible working arrangements, which often impacts women more than it does men. And, while the pandemic has improved things somewhat, there is still an expectation that everyone will be available constantly and can deal with queries instantly.
I don’t want them to be the only woman in a meeting with 12 men, or to have to fight for their opinions to be considered
In my career, every line manager and almost every mentor I have had has been a man. And those men have been great – they have taught me a lot.
But they don’t have quite the same appreciation of what the industry is like as they would if they were not men. It is really difficult to tell a man that you don’t think your opinion is being considered because of your gender.
Yes, this is another article where a woman has written about gender balance in the construction industry and – honestly – I wasn’t sure whether it was something I wanted to write about. I was worried that it would only be read by women and I know I am not saying anything that has not been said before.
But, as I have watched our female graduates start their careers in engineering, I cannot help but feel a little defensive. I don’t want them to be the only woman in a meeting with 12 men, or to have to fight for their opinions to be considered.
I want them to feel supported and to be able to work their way to the top of companies if that is what they want to do. Things are starting to change, but there is a long way to go, and the 15-year-old girl inside me still finds that fact a little overwhelming.
Anna Beckett is an associate at Webb Yates Engineers