Diversity - Are these our true colours?

11 July 2015

Diversity is certainly on the industry's agenda, but how successful are all the 'initiatives' at changing the face of construction? Elaine Knutt reports. Illustrations by Jane Smith.

If diversity, inclusiveness and equality could be wished into being by initiatives and open discussion, we would be a veritable rainbow industry by now. Many of the sector’s key employers and professional institutions are making sincere efforts to attract, train and support individuals who are not part of the white, male majority: mentoring programmes and networking groups proliferate; awards schemes for industry women have helped raise their profile.

There is also an anecdotal picture of progress, particularly if you are working on large-scale London sites. “It certainly feels likes there are more women, and more Asians and black people in the industry today,” says Canute Simpson MCIOB, who runs facilitation and coaching business Smart Objectives and is a black man in construction who feels in slightly less of a minority these days. “At a recent workshop, out of 20 people nine were women, all with different functional roles, and there was a black female project director. I thought: that shows the day!”  

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Yet the feeling that progress is being made is not yet supported by statistics. In the industry as a whole, the Office of National Statistics’ 2014 Labour Force Survey indicates that around 14% of industry workers are female, compared to 47% in the general workforce.

The Construction Industry Training Board also admits that 97% of new apprentices coming into the industry are male. And just 5.7% of the industry workforce is black or from an ethnic minority, compared with around 10% for the general working population.

Much of the gap between perceptions and cold, hard facts is filled with the vast army of industry small and medium-sized enterprises, says Sarah Fenton, strategic partnerships director at the CITB.

“Progress has been in pockets, both geographically and across the industry as a whole – for instance, some Tier 1 contractors. But visibility and impact [of progress] remains low – it’s individual companies doing their bit. It’s not core business, particularly for SMEs, when you haven’t got the resources to tackle this. We need more support for SMEs to make it as simple as possible to understand the clear business benefits – that’s our role.”

Diversity by numbers

  • According to McKinsey, companies across all sectors with the most women on their boards consistently outperform those with no female representation, by 41% in terms of equity and 56% in terms of operating results. 
  • According to the RIBA, entrants to Part 1 architecture courses at university are split 50:50 between men and women. But by the time architects reach partner and director stage, women account for only 12-13% of senior posts.
  • At 14%, the representation of women in the UK construction workforce is slightly higher than the EU average of 12%. The highest female representation is found in Norway (35%), Denmark (25%) and Sweden (18%). The lowest number of women – just 2% – is in Greece.
  • In Germany, from 2016, all publicly listed companies will have to enforce a quota of 30% women on their management boards. If a suitable candidate cannot be found, the post will remain vacant.
  • In 2005, just 5% of RICS membership was female. By 2015, that figure had risen to 13%. The figure for quantity surveyors is 11%.
  • According to the UK Contractors Group, 17% of members’ employees are women, and 6% are from ethnic minorities, slightly higher than the industry average.

Chrissi McCarthy MCIOB, director of diversity consultancy Constructing Equality, is also concerned that conversations about equality aren’t filtering down to sites and SMEs. “That’s where the biggest problems are. There’s always been a disconnect between site and office,” she says, adding: “SMEs are entrenched in so many stereotypes about who does the work, and fear putting someone who looks different on site. The difficulty is we tend to view equality as a problem to resolve, and not as a solution to the challenges we face as an industry.”

As McCarthy says, the imperative to draw in talent from a wider pool has never been stronger. With the CITB’s Construction Skills Network report estimating that we face a challenge of attracting an additional 44,000 workers a year to keep output in line with demand, the industry cannot afford to rely on recruiting from the white male population.

And unless action is taken, there could be an increasing divergence between construction’s profile, and those of its clients and society as whole – ultimately making it harder to deliver projects and harming profitability and productivity.

At EC Harris, services development director Lizi Stewart, who is overseeing concerted efforts at the consultancy to improve its diversity profile, is certainly aware of the risk. “When I look at our industry through some of our clients’ eyes – for example, HS2 is led by Michele Dix and Beth West, or Lloyds Banking Group [which has pledged that 40% of its top 8,000 jobs will be held by women by 2020] – they have really gender-balanced mixed teams. Compared with how much progress they’re making, we’re a country mile behind.”

Third, with an increasing stress on the collaboration – not least to deliver on the promise of BIM – there’s a recognition that mixed teams often produce better outcomes. “Study after study has shown that more diverse teams reach better solutions,” says Ailie McAdam, director for infrastructure, Europe and Africa at Bechtel. “That’s why there is a real pull from senior management in the UK to tackle this – it’s a business imperative.”

“Do we spend ages raking through evidence or do we recognise it’s happening because we can see it day to day?” asks Paul Heather, managing director for London and south-east construction at Skanska, which is aiming to be a leader in diversity and inclusion by 2020.

“We agreed we don’t have to justify it, when we can see it drives innovation and better behaviour. Both in male-dominated teams and female-dominated groups, there can be an unhelpful dynamic. So when you get mixed groups, your behaviour sets tend to improve.

New normal

Factors contributing to the diversity “feel-good” factor include a wave of recent initiatives and campaigns, including the RIBA’s pro-women Twitter campaign #seemejoinme, and the government-backed #notjustforboys. Networking group Chicks with Bricks has also caused a stir by hosting events with a guest list that is 12% male – so the men can briefly experience being in a minority.

Just last month, both the RIBA and RICS launched pro-diversity campaigns aimed at employers in their respective fields. The RIBA is now mandating a diversity and inclusion policy for all accredited practices, which will require them to gather data on staff backgrounds and put in place an action plan appropriate to the size of the business. “It’s an industry-wide issue, but we’re doing everything we can to put our own house in order,” says Adrian Dobson, director of practice
at the RIBA.

And the RICS has introduced the Inclusive Employer Quality Mark for surveying firms and the wider industry. Participants sign up to six “proof points” of their commitment to diversity, inclusion and equality, and have two years in which to report their progress.

“The quality mark is a wake-up call for the industry to get behind something and make a difference. If we don’t do something, we’ll have an even bigger problem on our hands,” says Amanda Clack, senior vice-president of the RICS. She also points to the success of its “Visible Women” campaign, which has trained and prepared 65 women as spokespeople on surveying issues. 

Finally, there’s been a wave of awards events such as Women in Construction and the RICS-sponsored Women of the Future, showcasing the achievements of women in the industry, and giving them the name- and face-recognition factor that used to go almost exclusively to men. “Sometimes, you do have to do the special awards when you’re in a minority, you have to show the concentration of talent,” says Bridget Bartlett, deputy chief executive of the CIOB, and chair of the Construction Industry Council’s diversity panel.

"When I look at our industry through some of our clients' eyes, they have really gender-balanced mixed teams... we're a country mile behind."

Lizi Stewart, EC Harris

As Bartlett says, female-oriented awards can compensate for the fact that women are typically less likely to put themselves forwards for awards, or indeed promotion at work, than their male counterparts: studies suggest that women will apply for jobs if they meet 90% of the criteria, while for men the threshold is perhaps 70%.

Bartlett, who says that leadership is key to influencing diversity, is aware that there’s a long way to go until the culture of the industry adapts to become as welcoming to minority groups as it is to the white male majority. As an example, she was shocked to hear that a well-known industry employer insists on having senior management meetings at 6am, creating a competitive climate in the business that could be off-putting for anyone outside the white male “club”. 

So Bartlett emphasises the importance of changing a business’s culture from the top down, by focusing on diversity in the board room: “Bringing women on the board has an impact on the culture, as with appointing black people and gay people - you would find the culture would change. With more women on boards, you’re likely to be putting in place strategies to attract and then keep people in. But if boards are macho and held at 6am, who’d bother?

But with the issue firmly embedded on the industry’s to-do list and so many initiatives underway, why are things changing so slowly? At Constructing Equality, Chrissi McCarthy points to research into HR and diversity policies which suggests that diversity initiatives fall into three categories: episodic, when a company reacts to a specific challenge, such as contractual requirement; freestanding, when there is a policy decision made to tackle the issue but little connection with the business strategy; and systemic, where the actions are integrated with the business goals.

The problem, she argues, is that not all initiatives, such as in-house training or networking groups for women or ethnic minorities, automatically yield positive results: “There’s a tendency to indulge in what we call ‘distant cheerleading’ – to think that anything we do in the name of equality will turn out right.

“Sometimes it does, but if an initiative is introduced into an environment that’s very individualistic and competitive, some people might think that the target group is being given a leg-up.

“Many companies are starting to think about [diversity and inclusion] and that’s brilliant, but quite often it’s based on what they think will work, not on the research. So they go off and do the thing that feels good and when it doesn’t work they feel disheartened,” she warns.

'Systemic' approach

On the other hand, Construction Manager has found several examples of major companies demonstrating the “systemic” approach of aligning diversity policy with other business goals. For instance, Skanska is committed to being a “leader” in diversity and inclusion in all its home markets by 2020, putting the issue on an equivalent footing with health and safety, and sustainability.

In the UK it has set up a diversity and inclusion working group led by Paul Heather, managing director of London and south-east construction business, who says: “Part of the reason I’m there is we don’t want people to feel it’s just an HR issue. It gives it a focus about business performance.”

Initiatives include adding diversity and unconscious bias training to its leadership development programme; a quantity surveying training scheme for non-cognate graduates that has recruited a high proportion of Asian and female entrants; and holding a high-profile summit on diversity with speakers and an audience from outside the industry. 

And demonstrating that diversity in not just a head-office initiative, Skanska also holds on-site workshops. “They’re on every site, it’s an open invite and we see a large take-up,” Heather says. “One thing that’s made a difference is ‘What do you think?’ sessions. We have a library of case studies – some fictional, some with video content – that pose a scenario people discuss. We started out with ethical dilemmas, then expanded it into diversity and inclusion.” Positive results are feeding through in the results of staff engagement questionnaires, he says.

"With more women on boards, you will be putting in place strategies to attract and then keep people in. But if boards are macho and held at 6am, who'd bother?"

Bridget Bartlett, CIOB

EC Harris and Bechtel, two more companies that see diversity as part of their overall business strategy, both underline the importance of “unconscious bias” training to help break decision-making that prolongs the status quo.

At EC Harris, team leaders have been on courses since February, and an e-module for all staff is on its way. “It looks out how your life experience has shaped how you make decisions,” says Lizi Stewart. “Our brains recognise patterns from things you’ve done before, and that can colour your judgement.”

“There’s a lot of positive intent [around diversity], but sometimes you don’t understand the role that unconscious bias plays,” agrees Ailie MacAdam at Bechtel, who says that training has been rolled out to everyone in the infrastructure business. “It helps you think about situations where you’ve had unconscious bias and made a decision that doesn’t support diversity.”

Data is another key component of diversity at Bechtel. “Understanding your data and measuring against it is an important part of it,” she adds, revealing that Bechtel has found that more diverse teams have better scores on its internal cost and schedule performance indicators, and that the company hopes to see a similar impact on health and safety.

Part of the industry’s struggle to raise its performance on diversity is down to demographic lag, as the industry is full of individuals who started their careers in the less diverse 1970s and 1980s. But the time when that gives the industry an excuse is coming to an end, as Lizi Stewart at EC Harris points out.

“‘Generation Y’ has different expectations. They were completely gender balanced in their schools and universities, and have friends from ethnic minorities. In the wider world, diversity is the reality, acceptance of other groups a way of life. What will happen if these 14-to-16-year-olds then find themselves in an industry where there’s still a culture dominated by white men?” she asks.

That’s the underlying problem the industry has to tackle: the risk that a culture dominated by the white male majority will look increasingly out of step with society – indeed the new House of Commons now looks more diverse than the industry – and unattractive as a career.

As Chrissi McCarthy warns, some “initiatives” might risk disappointing results. But there’s a clear imperative for every employer and industry body to deliver the training and debate opportunities that will make the industry a more welcoming place for everyone.


An excellent article. As someone who has been championing diversity across the construction industry for many years I am proud to have seen the industry change, albeit slowly. But even having led the RICS as it's first female President, I am well aware that there are clearly areas which need more attention than others. Unconscious bias is a major issue. While it won't be changed overnight, the drive and enthusiasm for the Inclusive Employer Charter Mark, particularly by some of the UKs leading construction companies is exceptionally good news and will mean that change will happen and happen a bit quicker than over the past ten years!

Louise Brooke-Smith, 27 July 2015

WISH – Women in Social Housing – has been championing diversity across the housing sector since it was set up as an informal networking organisation 12 years ago by two industry professionals, Debra Constance and Nicola Dibb. WISH’s all female networking enables women who are looking to succeed see other women who have achieved great things. WISH networking events invite role models to speak and share their experiences, advice and wisdom on how to get on in the housing sector. From these women gain aspiration, support, strength and mentoring.

WISH believes that only when women begin to occupy senior positions will the culture of an organisation really change. Only then will diversity and equality issues that prevent women joining the sector, or progressing, get tackled. Having lots of senior women is great, but if they’re not in positions of real influence then little will change. There are many inspirational and passionate women working in our sector.

To this end WISH is championing diversity through its ‘Change the face’ initiative to introduce the wide range of jobs available in the housing sector to pre-GCSE schoolgirls across the country. A short ’Change the face’ DVD has been produced showing women across the sector talking about how much they enjoy their careers in housing and construction, how they got into the sector and what differences they make to people’s lives. WISH wants to engage with young women, regardless of their academic abilities and send out the message that there really is something for everyone in housing.

WISH is also a main sponsor of the annual ‘Women in Housing Awards’ and ‘Women in Housing Conference held in Manchester in October. The full day conference with key speaker Baroness Warsi aims to develop the skills women need to meet the challenges of the future. The awards recognise the talent and contributions of women in the housing sector recognising the outstanding role that women play in the continuing success of the sector.
For more information about WISH visit

Gill Smith, Chair – WISH South West, 30 July 2015

Brilliant article. Been researching why diversity in construction is important as I put together a proposal for work on Diversity and Equality training. Has anyone got any recommendations on good companies to do this through? I've been looking at Keystone Training to do this through (, so if anyone has any notes or experience with them, could you email me, I would be very grateful!

Niall Lazenby, 17 July 2017

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