By Jayne Hall, CABE Vice-President and Building Control and Planning Enforcement Manager at South Gloucestershire Council
So much has moved forward in the twelve months since I published my very first blog on International Women’s Day 2018, and with this year’s 2019 International Women’s Day message being ‘Balance for Better’, I couldn’t help but look at how we can make the construction industry a more balanced workplace.
Women are still underrepresented within the construction industry, despite efforts of all sectors to address this. The greatest challenge has been how do we reach out to the best talent and persuade them that the world of construction has so much to offer.
When I accepted the request of Chartered Association of Building Engineers’ (CABE) new CEO, Dr Gavin Dunn, to represent our members as the Diversity Champion, I quickly realised the weight and importance of the role. Writing bi-monthly blogs for the CABE Journal Building Engineer provided me with a platform to gently introduce the reality of the demographic imbalance in our industry to building professionals throughout the UK and around the world.
The reality of gender discrimination and harrowing tales of harassment and abuse of power have been rife in the media, with the ‘#MeToo’ movement bringing attention to the stark reality faced by many women in the workplace. Of course, the backlash to this was not lost on me, when my first tentative journal article touching on the subject of gender imbalance received some interesting feedback. Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but the strength of feeling displayed by some got me thinking and it opened the opportunity for deeper dialogue about equality and what it means to many people across the gender, race, sexuality, disability and age divide. It reinforced to me that true equality must be for everyone.
Breaking down barriers
Of course, today is International Women’s Day, bringing with it a focus on women’s achievements against adversity around the world. It aims to celebrate some 50% of the population and highlight some of the issues that give rise to difficulties both socially and in the workplace, with the hope that greater awareness will enable some of the barriers to be broken down.
But as I write I know that I must take care with how I express myself; I know that a misplaced word or phrase could lead to serious misinterpretation and offence, and of course, everyone knows that meaningful debate can easily degenerate into fruitless discord, where arguments fall upon deaf ears.
It is well documented that women are still underrepresented within the construction industry, despite efforts of all sectors to address this. Add the impact of the increased average age of the workforce across all sectors and the loss of skills, knowledge, wisdom and experience as people retire, or leave the industry due to workplace pressures on work/life balance or – dare I mention Brexit’s impact on freedom of movement – and we have an industry still staring potential crisis in the face.
The greatest challenge has to be how we reach out to the best talent and persuade them that the world of construction has so much to offer, from personal growth to job satisfaction and career development.
We must all be more aware of unconscious bias and reconsider whether the familiar practice of positive discrimination has more risk of harm than good. Many companies still have quotas for minority groups and, I know from speaking with colleagues and through my own experience, that it hasn’t all been a good thing. A friend at a major bank told me of the frustration of younger men who are disillusioned when they know that the next promotion may be denied to them when their company has a drive to increase the number of women managers. Equally, I hear from young women ascending the career path who say they want to be judged fairly on their capabilities and don’t want to feel they only won their position because they checked a convenient tick-box on a HR form.
Bringing back confidence
Competency has been a huge buzz word amongst the building professions this year, especially since the UK government’s acceptance of the Hackitt Report recommendations. This might be just what we need across the industry, to dispense with stereotypes and bring confidence back to the industry. Where individuals have to demonstrate their skills, abilities and competence, then age, race, sexuality, disability and gender will no longer be a factor.
One of my key themes this year has been to try to promote a more caring culture of kindness and consideration and co-operation. The well-being of everyone in our industry is critical for its health and ability to meet the challenges moving forward into the next decade. After all we are all in this together, and as the Jack Johnson song goes, we are ‘better together’.
So let’s celebrate International Women’s Day – and all the other special days throughout the year – and build a magnificent construction industry that can stand proud, knowing that we provide true equality through competence, standards and ethics, and deliver a better built environment to benefit the whole planet.
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