Initially conceived as a short-term project attached to the construction of the London Olympic Park, Women Into Construction has developed into a permanent organisation encouraging the employment of women in construction. Its challenge? To reverse centuries of male domination of the most segregated industry in the United Kingdom. While the results are promising in the public sector, women are still facing a sexist, inflexible and highly conservative industry.

The shoes of hurrying employees, the black taxis with their tinted windows and the bank façades stretching skywards are all sombre and shiny. We are in Canary Wharf, among the glass buildings of London’s business district. From the 28th floor of the Citibank tower where Kath Moore has her office, only the red roofs of the double-decker buses pierce the grey. Kath Moore, a small delicate woman aged around 50 with a piercing look, could have built these imposing structures. She has been working in construction for 30 years, and has been managing Women Into Construction (WIC) for seven years. This British association aims to promote the employment of women in construction. The administration of Crossrail – a new and mammoth railway project for Greater London – graciously offered her team a home.

Up to 2008, Kath was among the 1% of the female workforce carrying out manual work on British building sites. At the age of 19, after training in carpentry, she was "naively" surprised that there were no other women among her colleagues. In one darkly humorous anecdote, she tells how, in her first job, the small changing room that also served as rest room was papered with posters of nude women. "Once they got to know me, they removed them", she recalls. "I moved around, worked on different sites, but I felt isolated. Even on huge sites, I was the only woman! During my career, nothing changed." In construction as a whole, including administrative posts where women are least under-represented, men account for around 89% of the workforce. This same level of male domination cannot be seen in any other industry.

An opportunity presented itself in 2008 with the construction of the London Olympic Park. Kenneth Livingstone, who was mayor of the capital at the time, was less interested in sport than in the capital that would flow into the city’s poorer districts. The Labourite’s keyword was "regeneration". In a famous speech, he later admitted having supported London’s bid for the Olympic Games because it was "the only way to get the billions of pounds out of the Government to develop the East End". The project aimed to be "inspirational, safe and inclusive". Targets were set to employ "more diverse" and local labour and to "combat occupational gender segregation in construction". That was why the WIC project was set up, under the leadership of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), which was in charge of the site: to encourage the employment of women. "I said to myself: ‘finally, it’s time that someone realises that there’s a problem!’", says Kath.

The WIC proved to be very successful. It arranged 87 work placements, helped 255 women to get jobs on the site – therefore doubling their proportion compared to the industry average – and even boasts having "changed the culture of construction". Although, four years later, the number of women employed in the industry was still stubbornly low, the WIC had forged a reputation for itself and had been recognised by the British Government as an example to follow. After the Olympic Park was delivered, the WIC was for a time managed by the construction giantLendlease, but then became a not-for-profit organisation in January 2015. It is exclusively funded by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), which receives most of its income from employers in the sector. "It’s unusual", says Tessa Wright, from the Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity at Queen Mary, University of London. "Many voluntary projects promoting gender equality lose their funding after a certain amount of time. The WIC has a successful model and, with the industry’s support, can continue indefinitely."

Back-up labour

Men have almost totally dominated the industry since at least the 19th century. It was in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, and in the absence of regulations, that employers and trade unions almost systematically excluded women from apprenticeships, which were the main way of accessing the industry. The idea of women doing "men’s work", which was therefore synonymous with competition for wages, explains the "intensity of the resentment and abhorrence" among men.

Having said that, in the last century, women worked en masse in construction during the two world wars, only to be laid off as soon as the men came home from the front. This reduced them to cheap back-up labour, with wages on average 40% lower than men’s. Even during the period of reconstruction, they accounted for only 0.5% of the work in the building sector. It was not until 1955 that the construction unions called for equal wages and recognised women as skilled workers. Since then, however, their presence has remained "stubbornly low". And this is not for lack of will. "When you tour the universities that offer training in the industry, you find that they have a higher proportion of women and people from immigrant communities than on building sites", explains Linda Clarke, Professor of European Industrial Relations at Westminster University. "As a result, even if they complete their training, they cannot get jobs in construction."

The everyday sexism that permeates the industry certainly does not favour greater diversity. Studies also point to difficult working conditions, informal and discriminatory recruitment methods, and a frenetic production rate as the main obstacles to women entering the industry. But this is not the full story: in the health sector, where there are just as prohibitive working conditions (long days, family-unfriendly hours, etc.), women are largely over-represented. Whilst the number of recognised cases of occupational disease has been slowly falling over the last decade, there have continued to be more fatal accidents in construction than in other industries: 35 people died on building sites in the last two years, with the majority involving falls from heights.

More recently, the rapid rise in subcontracting via temporary employment agencies and "self-employment" have been responsible for increasing job insecurity, accentuating "sectarianism" in the industry and reinforcing the exclusion of women. "If you are lucky enough to work for a large company, you can move from one project to another", notes Kath. "Otherwise, when a building project is completed, you lose your job." Women’s wages are on average around 23% lower than those of their male colleagues, compared to a 19% difference on average at national level. While women account for around 7% of students on vocational training courses in construction in London, they only account for 1% of workers on building sites. Among the few female workers who manage to get into the industry, most leave after five years.

“It can be shocking if you’re not used to it”

Sitting next to Kath is Sarah (name changed at her request), who is around 30. "Discrimination? Of course, men are not used to seeing you on a building site, so it’s a defence mechanism. But it’s a question of time. If you’re not prepared, the behaviour of men used to being with each other can be shocking", she observes fretfully. Sarah has just got a six-week work placement on a Crossrail site – London’s urban railway network – where she will oversee site safety. When inequality starts at the job search stage, with dozens of submitted CVs being ignored, female candidates approach the WIC through their colleges or employment agencies.

The organisation firstly offers them the necessary training, and then uses its network of London recruiters – around 60 companies – to offer them short unpaid work placements or jobs. In Sarah’s case, the WIC ensured that she had the appropriate safety certification, which is a vital key for accessing building sites, and covered the costs of her protective equipment. "It’s a huge boost", she confirms. "Once you have a foot in the door, you can find more opportunities, gain experience and really become more hopeful." The WIC therefore acts as an intermediary between candidates and employers, carrying out niche work that British employment agencies are reluctant to do as a result of austerity and gradual budget cuts. "The problem with Job Centres is that they are not really bothered about the nature of the job", adds Kath. "They simply want to get people off the unemployment list. So if a woman comes to them and says ‘I am trying to be an electrician and someone has offered me a work placement’, they are not really interested. From their point of view, it is simply another six weeks of unemployment benefits to pay. They would prefer to see them working in sales, for example."

The WIC’s support has helped to "remove the barriers to work" for hundreds of women. The organisation can also pay for their tools, protective equipment and childcare costs, which can be prohibitively expensive if they are dependent on welfare benefits. The WIC also monitors candidates on site and approaches employers again once work placements have ended. Result: whereas around 80% of candidates were unemployed before presenting themselves to Kath’s team, over half have secured a job following their work placements.

“It is still very difficult in the private sector”

Perusing the handful of studies on the profession reveals some delightful nonsense. Women apparently have amazing psychic powers, with the ability to "soften the environments" at work, "inspire innovation, challenge the norms and enhance collaboration". According to the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), employing them in construction "is no longer simply a nice thing to do; it has become a necessity".

Faced with such a sparkling argument, the industry is slowly becoming aware of the problem. However, only "isolated cases of best practice" have been observed by Tessa Wright. Yet the construction industry urgently needs to rethink its recruitment practices: since 2007 there has been a severe shortage of labour on the horizon. During the financial crisis, when construction order books suddenly shrank, around 400 000 workers left British building sites. Now that the cranes are reappearing in London and the provinces, around one worker in five is approaching retirement. The Construction Industry Training Board estimates that 182 000 new recruits will be needed by 2018.

The shortage is particularly acute because the number of apprenticeships is "at an all-time low". "The industry is heavily reliant on better trained workers from Eastern Europe", observes Linda Clarke from the University of Westminster. "With the construction boom at a low ebb, the industry must rethink both itself and its work organisation", she adds. "It is almost no longer a manual job, therefore the argument that women are not physically strong enough no longer stands up. It is now much more a question of qualifications, which in many respects plays to the advantage of women." As a result, while it is not a "magic wand that just needs to be waved" against the ills in construction, the wider and potentially better qualified recruitment pool offered by the WIC could soon prove to be indispensable.

In major public projects, however, progress is less dependent on the goodwill of employers. That is why the WIC sends a quarter of its candidates to Crossrail sites. The Equality Act 2010 and the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 have in fact reinforced the control of public authorities over the social impact of their activities. The first requires them to ensure that discrimination is reduced and equal opportunities are promoted in the performance of their duties. This allows them to impose specific recruitment criteria on companies responding to their invitations to tender, as was the case with the London Olympic Park. The second requires them to look at improving economic, social and environmental well-being in the areas of their activities, including through the services that they commission.

"Public projects set criteria that must be met", explains Kath. "They do not necessarily impose a requirement to employ women, but they often recommend hiring local workers or a more diverse workforce. It can even happen that companies come directly to us when they realise that they may lose contracts if they do not meet these criteria. We say to contracted companies: we can help you with that. If you need a woman who lives, for example, in Lambeth [editor’s note: south London], a female trainee or an electrician, we can consult our database and find you someone. The idea is to facilitate the work of these companies."

Promising results have also been achieved among the direct workforce of public authorities, where the construction union (UCATT) is also better represented. As a result, around 13% of the workers responsible for maintaining Leicester City Council’s rental stock are women. "Many of them are realising that it is cheaper to employ someone directly, rather than subcontract the work", adds Linda Clarke. "They are also more open to employing a mixed workforce, and to encouraging and training women. But it is still very difficult in the private sector."

Kath often quotes a comment, made by a company boss who shall remain nameless, which summarises the "spirit" of construction: "There are more people on our Board of Directors called Geoff than there are women." For how much longer?•

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How a handful of women intend to change the face of British construction

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