How can we even up the gender balance?

Mixed gender boardrooms deliver better productivity, innovation and profit. So how can we ensure women are in place to join them, asks Chrissi McCarthy.

Since the Davies report three years ago, there has been real progress in the number of women in board rooms. Representation on FTSE 100 boards now stands at 20.7%, up from 12.5% in 2011, with only two all-male boards remaining. The FTSE 250 has achieved 15.6%, up from 7.8% in 2011 – with 83 of the FTSE 250 all-male boards in 2011 now having recruited one or more women onto their boards. However, among executive board members the number of women is still small, at just 7%.

This is not just a problem for women as individuals, it is a wider challenge for companies. If businesses do not retain and promote key talent, they may as well throw money out the door, because mixed gender teams have been shown to add innovation, productivity and profit to those comprising just men. So how should we address the board gender imbalance in the construction industry?

Despite more women graduating from construction and built environment degrees we are failing to retain them and turn them into senior talent. There is a “leaky pipe” syndrome where the number of women in the industry drops off disproportionately, compared to men, throughout their career. This is due to a number of barriers that have to be tackled concurrently, including unconscious bias, nepotistic behaviours and paternalistic attitudes.

It needs to be understood that good intentions can be as damaging as bad ones. Trying to protect women by wrapping them up in cotton wool or overseeing their work more than their male colleagues can be a frustrating experience that, over time, holds back careers and creates a chasm between women and their male colleagues.

"Despite more women showing an interest in construction and built environment degrees we are failing to retain them and turn them into senior talent."

We must also understand that people tend to promote in their own image, valuing traits and opinions that mirror their own. Though I am not saying women differ, they are more likely to hold alternative management views or be seen to be different, which can be viewed as a weakness where it should be seen as a strength. Women, as a group, are more likely to be empathetic, use soft management skills and undervalue their financial worth in the workplace.

The reason behind this is a complex mixture of nature and nurture with societal roles playing a massive part. What is important here is helping women to understand how the beliefs they hold can actually hold them back in the workplace. For example, not negotiating your salary due to a belief that this will be seen as a bit “demanding” can send the message that you do not know how to negotiate.

Companies are starting to look for long-term solutions to this problem, realising that a well-thought-through programme will not only help retain the best talent, but also attract more talented women into the industry and send the message that we value you, we will develop you, your future is with us.

Outsourcing and energy services company Mitie, for example, was recently recognised in the Opportunity Now Excellence in Practice 2014 Awards by BITC (Business in the Community) for the work it has undertaken to promote equality and diversity, including setting up a company-wide women’s network and creating a network of diversity champions. And consultancy Arup has embedded policies and practices supporting women across its organisation for some time and was recognised for this when in 2011 it was awarded Employer of Choice for Women status from the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EWOA).

 So what can be done?

We would advise construction companies to initiate a holistic programme that considers the whole experience of women in the workplace. Key areas are:

Helping ISG broaden its talent pipeline

Constructing Equality has been working with ISG on a company development programme to help women move into senior positions and encourage their aspirations as future business leaders. In 2013, women made up more than 20% of ISG’s total UK workforce, compared with the construction industry average of 13%. Part of the programme involves a two-day training course as a launch pad for other initiatives such as an in-house task group, mentoring and networking.

The course aims to give women the tools they need to understand and overcome specific challenges they might face in the construction workplace, boosting their confidence in the process.

The first day covers areas like body language and how it differs between the sexes. It also covers why using self-deprecating language about your work – “it was a bit rushed so it’s not great” – can ruin promotional chances and why women are only likely to put in for a promotion if they feel they have 100% of the criteria required, whereas men are likely to apply if they only have 70%.

The second day focuses on the impact of the working environment, how the perceptions and actions of those around you can have an impact on your career, such as lack of appreciation of women’s soft skills.

Chrissi McCarthy MCIOB is managing director of Constructing Equality


Despite a small increase in women graduating in construction related activities, they still do not create the necessary pool of women to provide a substantial base for the pyramid, topped by main board directors. This is particularly so when considering the other life challenges that women face, especially if also responsible for young children. Even though, in my lifetime, gender stereotyping has diminished in the general population, apart from architecture & estate agency, construction is still not really 'above the radar' for female school leavers. There is still much to do at school careers advice level.

Janet Wood, 2 May 2014

We should, without doubt have more women in the housing sector, we need more balance. I agree woman are better at empathy, and with a different approch to tackling issues on site.

tony preece, 20 May 2014

I found this article interesting as I have worked in the construction industry for forty years and to quote the “leaky pipe syndrome” has always been a problem. The answer as I it is to promote equality, not gender specific training. Having worked for a major international construction company in the 80’s where women where fast tracked regardless of ability and not expected to carry out the same duties as their male colleagues, caused resentment in their male counterparts and those who had the ability where not afforded the respect they were due. By bringing the industry into the 21st century would help in competing against other sectors, improving the working conditions, status, salaries and addressing attitudes will benefit all, attracting more people irrespective of gender. Increasing numbers at the base as Janet Wood states will increase numbers at the top.

Nigel Kirby, 21 May 2014

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