Hard hat revolution: women targeted to fill vacancies
More women than ever are donning hard hats to work in property and construction. But in an industry faced with widespread skills shortages triggered by the latest spurt of housebuilding, progress has not always been rapid.
"The industry is changing and it is changing for the better," says Avni Mehta, deputy project manager on a £500m housing project at 190 Strand in central London. Seven of the 20 people on her team at developer St Edward are women – architects, people working on the commercial side or in administration. "That's quite a high percentage for what would be considered a male-dominated industry," she says.
At St Edward, a joint venture between housebuilder Berkeley and insurer Prudential's M&G property arm, 43% of staff are female. On site, Mehta, the secretary and a single contractor are the only three women out of 120 people, but she says: "The fact that we have one female operative is pretty significant. We had one on my last project, too, and I hope to see this increase on the project."
Mehta, 28, who trained as a civil engineer and previously worked on the tunnelling for London's Victoria station upgrade, adds: "There's a reason why a lot of women don't want to [work on site]. It's physically demanding. A lot more women could do it but why would you stand out in the rain for 12 hours a day?"
Hourly rates for skilled construction workers have soared in the past year after 400,000 people left the industry during the recession. Figures in September showed the number of out-of-work bricklayers was the lowest in a decade.
The proportion of women working in construction, however, has crept up over the past 15 years, to 13.4% in 2014 from 11.7% in 1999, according to the Office for National Statistics. Women account for 286,000 of a construction workforce of 2.1m. In manual roles, though, that percentage falls to just 1.3%, barely changed from 1.2% in 1999.
Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders, says: "It's encouraging to see an increase in the proportion of women currently working in the construction industry compared to 15 years ago. The construction sector is facing an ever-growing skills shortage and, as the industry emerges from the worst recession in living memory, we are struggling to find enough skilled workers."
Some industry and government initiatives designed to attract people into construction specifically target women. The Royal Academy of Engineering runs a two-day course in developing skills for university and beyond for girls who are about to start engineering degrees.
Mehta, who recently hosted a group of young women who had been on the course, welcomes such initiatives: "You don't learn about engineering at school. I went to an all-girls school. Engineering wasn't exactly one of the core subjects. My physics teacher said: 'You're good at physics and maths, have you thought about it?' I said no."
She went on to do her master's in civil engineering at the University of Bath, with sponsorship from Taylor Woodrow, and then worked for the housebuilder for four years.
Last November, she joined St Edward where, as deputy project manager, she is responsible for the construction of 206 luxury flats and penthouses at the Strand development.
In some parts of the industry, change has come faster. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) says the number of female surveyors has risen from 2% in 1980 to 13% last year.
Louise Brooke-Smith, who became the first female president of Rics this year and runs a property consultancy in Birmingham, says: "We've all got a war on talent, like accountants and lawyers. We have lagged behind but, boy, are we catching up."
But there are still woefully few female engineers. Women make up only 6% of the UK's engineering workforce, down from 7% in 2013, according to the 2014 annual skills survey from the Institution of Engineering and Technology.
The Royal Academy of Engineering says the UK needs to at least double the number of engineering graduates by 2020 to meet demand, with the industry needing an extra 830,000 professionals to replace those who left engineering and construction during the recession. The academy believes many of these new recruits will need to be women.
A major problem is the low number of girls at school who study physics, a key subject for careers in engineering and construction. An Institute of Physics report in 2012, It's Different for Girls, said almost half (49%) of state-funded, co-educational schools sent no girls at all to do A-level physics. A girl is four times more likely to take physics A level at a single-sex independent school than at a mixed state school.
The Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (Ucatt) formed its first women's network forum in March and highlighted the "harassment and bullying of women workers [that] continues to blight Britain's male-dominated industries".
Suzanne Kervin, a bricklayer and roofer, told the TUC women's conference in March about her experiences as the only woman working "on the tools" in her housing association. As a Ucatt delegate, she says: "Many women do not report bullying for fear of being labelled as complainers. Those that do are often ignored or ridiculed – accused of not being able to meet the demands of the job or told to develop a sense of humour. Deal with it or leave is the clear message."
Nicola Caiquo, a 24-year-old graduate who is training at the FTSE 250 housebuilder Redrow in London, says she has not experienced discrimination, although some people still look surprised when she turns up on site. "'Oh you are a girl, you studied construction and you are out on site,' but it's a positive reaction," she says. Being female "helps you to stand out. Any career in construction is about your attitude."
Mehta agrees, adding: "Maybe I get a little positive discrimination. I don't get sworn at as much as my male counterparts."