Opinion

Three steps to a better working life for women

6 July 2017 | By Jacqui Glass

Once, twice, three times a lady… three simple changes could enable construction to make the most of its female workforce, says Jacqui Glass.

Jacqui Glass

It really was a pleasure to convene eight graduates from our university, Loughborough, in London last month, who between them already have more than 40 years’ experience – enough to be described as an industry grandee, I thought afterwards.

And I prefer to look at it this way: here were eight young women who had dedicated over four decades of their lives to our industry – we should feel honoured and proud.

So I guess my overwhelming impression was that the industry was treating these women well. They were upbeat, professional, active, and motivated; it was heartening to see. It was reassuring to hear the industry has exceeded their expectations, that they’re achieving chartered status and – perhaps most relevant to CIOB and ICE – that they’re totally on board about the value of professional membership.

Of course, there were glitches, and I think these are captured in the report in this month’s Construction Manager. We heard how new recruits were influenced by line managers’ poor working habits, such as working too many hours day after day, and missing breaks and home life.

Positive collective action

However, in my response to our graduates’ snapshot of life in UK construction, I want to focus on actions, positive actions – and I am not talking about positive discrimination. I am talking about collective action, and I’m going to make three specific suggestions that I think we could deliver  across the whole industry by the end of 2017. And no, I’m not being unrealistic.

Let’s start with the basics, the fundamental human needs, shall we? It was a salutary experience to hear the everyday reality that some women go through on site every month. Yes, periods – there, I said it.

“Basically, we need to show women the opportunities and tell them: It’s time for you to apply for this promotion.”

Our graduates said that facilities on site sometimes overlook women’s personal needs, which can make a few days every month unpleasant, embarrassing, and deeply inconvenient. Yet this is such an easy fix. Contractors could just add sanitary equipment as a standard item in their site setup roster.

But, and to be fair, I can’t quite believe I am saying this in 2017, we must incentivise change to guarantee high-quality toilet facilities – for everyone, not just women. Maybe the Considerate Constructors Scheme (CCS) would like to play a role in rewarding good practice here? I know, a toilet trophy on the mantelpiece is potentially hilarious, but it’s no laughing matter really, is it?

Moving on to my second action, this is directed at excellence in recruitment, reward and progression. Our graduates told us that employers must “promote on skills – for all of the jobs – all of the time”. The concern was that young talent was overlooked, and unconscious bias was still driving appointment and promotion decisions. I’ve heard this myself: someone I know was told she was capable of doing the job, but was not offered it because: “Well, men need the jobs more than women, don’t they?” 

Show and tell opportunities

I’m keen to point HR teams towards highly rated employers on sites like Glassdoor, and to businesses with “returner” programmes to attract women who have left employment to have children, and encourage our HR colleagues to address unconscious bias, which still abounds.  

Finally, a suggestion so simple it sounds almost too obvious. But it isn’t. I’m going to call it “show and tell”. Basically, we need to show women the opportunities and tell them: “It’s time for you to apply for this promotion”, to enable their development/progression, then they will tell us they are interested in applying, and they can show us what they’re capable of.

It’s so easy – companies need to showcase opportunities within the business, so they can move on/develop. The graduates in our session spoke earnestly about their belief that by showing ambition from the start they would be supported to progress: a new take on the enduring camaraderie which characterises our industry.

The eight women we met demonstrated an authentic trust in our industry, and they have a deep respect for their colleagues and their professions. In presenting you with these three suggestions, I’m asking you to pay back on their 40 years of faith and commitment to our industry.

Reflect their depth of commitment and make these three changes happen in your business – and make them now, ready for the next set of female graduates who will be arriving at a site near you this summer.

Jacqui Glass FCIOB is professor of architecture and sustainable construction at Loughborough University

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