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Wednesday 8th
posted by Morning Star in Features

Female workers are hugely under-represented in construction, but targeted apprenticeships and education can help improve the situation, says GAIL CARTMAIL

UNITE has chosen International Women’s Day to launch our union’s Construction Women’s Network.

Some of the most confident and financially independent young women I have met are from the ranks our female construction apprentices.

That said, experiences among women do vary and not all are good. Indeed, we have concluded that to scale up the numbers of women in construction trades and crafts, Unite women need to tackle the issues that deter women from joining their industry.

Construction in Britain is, as we know, male-dominated and as a result too few people know what it is like to be a woman working in the range of trades that make up the sector.

In construction a good-quality apprenticeship, earn while you learn, should lead to decently paid trade.

Many veterans of the struggle to end the gender pay gap point to job segregation as a systemic problem, with traditionally male roles being paid more than “women’s work.”

None of the trades/craft women I have met have complained they do not get the rate for the job.

More women in better-paid jobs undoubtedly would help dent the pesky gender pay gap.

So why is it that in construction, only 12 per cent of workers are women and they are concentrated mostly in secretarial, administrative, design and project management roles?

Women are massively under-represented in manual trades, forming just 2 per cent of the workforce — a figure that has not seen very much movement since the 1970s.

This is despite the fact that women are now almost half the UK’s workforce, the highest number ever recorded. Construction UK is facing a double-edged sword of a skills shortage, not enough tradespeople now and a skills gap with no plan to plug it.

Attracting more women into construction is both a “no-brainer” and a major challenge. It’s a “no-brainer” because women are a largely untapped pool to recruit from; a challenge because breaking into an industry that is 98 per cent male currently requires tenacity and demands encouragement.

Breaking down gender stereotyping can only succeed if we acknowledge who needs to be influenced and convinced of the benefits of working in the sector.

How many parents and carers visualise their daughters working from height on a construction site or hard-wiring a house?

How many schools can boast gender-blind careers advice, information and guidance?

How many employers have accountable plans to attract young women into construction trades?

The statistics speak for themselves, not enough, not enough, not enough. We know that it will take more than token women in hard hats on industry posters to attract more women into construction.

The conundrum can be summed up as follows: we can’t change the culture without attracting more women and we can’t attract more women without changing the culture.

The construction industry needs to change drastically if it is to become a career option for more female workers. It goes without saying that employers should shoulder their responsibilities and so too must Unite.

We know from talking to our female members in a variety of trades — bricklayers, painters and decorators, electricians, carpenters and plumbers — that they can feel isolated.

They will often be the only woman working “on the tools” in their workplace. This means that their employers are not experienced in dealing with maternity issues, women’s health and safety matters and sometimes can’t even provide essential personal protective equipment to fit women or women-only toilets and separate shower facilities.

Members tell us they do not report bullying for fear of being labelled as complainers.

Those who do complain say they have been ignored or ridiculed — accused of not being able to meet the demands of the job or told to go with the flow of “banter” and “jokes.”

A number of tradeswomen have told us that they were assumed to be lesbian, this being seen as the explanation for their career choice.

This ludicrously old-fashioned working environment explains the poor retention rates of female workers in construction.

Harassment at work is not exclusive to women. Safety for lone workers in housing repairs and refurbishment benefits women and men equally.

Access to toilets for mobile street maintenance crews, likewise, is an issue regardless of gender, peeing against a wall or into a bucket lacks dignity whatever sex you are.

Quite simply, a hassle-free work environment that has zero-tolerance of bullying is what everyone deserves. Construction does not have a special exemption from employment norms. Zero tolerance of bullying and harassment as well as more flexible and family friendly working practices would attract not just more women but would benefit male workers too.

This massive under-representation of women in trades and construction is a problem that trade unions, politicians and government, both locally and nationally, need to tackle jointly. Working out recruitment and selection policies that are fully inclusive and expand the number of apprenticeships targeted at women would be a start.

How public money is spent can help. Government contracts, both central and local, are important to the industry. During 2015, publicsector construction projects were worth over £5 billion a quarter. Procurement can be used to ensure direct employment, apprenticeship places and training for women.

If a construction company can’t offer these opportunities, they should not be awarded the contract and that goes for outsourced council services too.

Council housing repair and maintenance teams that include women are appreciated by older people and other women who often feel safer having female tradespeople working inside their homes.

The industry must change to survive. Unite’s suggestions to tackle the under-representation of women workers in British construction include:

- Active promotion of the industry to women

- Recruitment and selection policies that are inclusive

- An expansion of the number of apprenticeships in construction targeted at women

- Mentoring and support in the workplace

- The introduction of flexible and family friendly working practices

- Zero tolerance of bullying and harassment

- Using procurement to ensure direct employment and apprenticeship places

- Promotion of the advantages of female trades to employers

- Champions at every level of the company or local authority.

In the meantime we will ensure that Unite’s Construction Women’s Network will be an inclusive forum for women in the industry.

The aims and issues will be determined by the network and we know from our experience that when women are linked up we are stronger.

  • Gail Cartmail is assistant general secretary of Unite.