Breaking construction’s bias to attract more women

With diversity and inclusion high on the construction industry’s agenda, Nicky Rance of Sir Robert McAlpine looks at some of the steps already taken and still yet to be taken to encourage more women into the sector.

Nicky Rance, project director at Sir Robert McAlpine.

The theme for last week’s International Women’s Day was “Break the Bias”, a concept that particularly resonates with the construction industry. After all, it’s not just that ours literally remains one of the most male-dominated industries - women make up just 14% of those working in the sector, for instance - but one that retains a notably macho image, too.

Faced with a looming skills shortage, it is clear that we need to break the bias and change the sector’s image to encourage more women into the sector. How can this be done? Well, I’ve seen first-hand how the sector has improved and how it can continue to do so.

Building a greater future

From a young age, I wanted to work in the built environment. I was sponsored by Sir Robert McAlpine to study civil engineering at the University of Nottingham, which allowed me to gain real-life experience during my summer holidays where I worked on the M6/M74 motorway and the Millennium Dome. This, my first taste of building something that would last, confirmed in my mind that construction was the career for me and the satisfaction that this instilled has motivated me ever since.

When I graduated from university, I started at Sir Robert McAlpine as a graduate engineer and have taken every opportunity that has been offered to me, ultimately becoming project director in 2019. Having worked on projects like the ExCel Exhibition Centre, Riverwalk and the Fulham Broadway Redevelopment, I’m now able to walk around London and feel a great sense of pride at the communities that I have helped create. In my view, this is much more satisfying than sitting behind a desk all day! And it is by giving women across the country such opportunities that we will change the gender balance in our sector.

Breaking the bias

Although I was able to take a traditional route into construction, there are now many alternative routes to take, which has gone a long way to boosting diversity. Indeed, a great way that the industry already encourages inclusivity is by supporting those without a university education through, for instance, apprenticeships to get their foot in the door. In fact, between 2020 and 2021 there was a 366% rise in the number of women taking on construction and engineering apprenticeships.

Reflecting on the past 20 years in construction makes clear that change has already begun. I have witnessed first-hand how the number of women around me has progressively increased and conversations about why women were not entering the sector - once taboo - are now open and honest. Conversations that might once have taken place in hushed voices are now being given voice in the boardroom - and this can only be positive.

Looking ahead

Although we are a more inclusive sector than was the case even just five years ago, more still needs to be done. To enact real change, we cannot rely solely on the education sector to inform our young people of the breadth of roles that construction offers. It is down to the supply chains, construction companies, industry bodies and universities to transform the way that construction is viewed amongst young people and discuss how roles in construction are not only for men. 

We are currently facing a skills shortage in the UK, especially in the trades, so it is paramount that we educate young people on the opportunity to take on trades like bricklaying, carpentry and decorative plastering. These trades can suit personality traits that are - perhaps - viewed as traditionally female, not least, attention to detail and dedication to master these skills over many years. It’s not that men or women make for better construction workers. Rather, taken together, a sector that boasts talented men and women will surely skyrocket.

My hope for the future is that anyone who has an interest in construction feels empowered to take the necessary steps to begin their career. Over the past four years, I have been a dedicated member of the Women Leaders Association, which offers women a network of support from like-minded, determined female leaders from a range of industries. It provides opportunities to make real relationships and learn from others on how to develop leadership capabilities. 

With groups like these and the foundation of inclusivity that has already been fostered in the industry, there is hope that a more diverse group of people will feel empowered to enter the sector and break the bias once and for all.

Nicky Rance is a project director at Sir Robert McAlpine.

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