Women in Construction: “We are seen as worth less.”

It has been well-documented that the construction industry has, for a long time, been a male-dominated sector. Women make up just 10-15% of construction industry employees, with these predominantly found in administrative, secretarial and sales positions, and just 1% of site operatives are women.

In addition, the construction industry has one of the highest gender pay gaps across all sectors, at a staggering 20%.

The construction sector’s glaring inequality problem does nothing to help it to successfully overcome the worsening skills shortage, or attract new talent into an industry which is predominantly made up of men aged 40+.

So, what can be done to enable construction to catch up with other sectors in attracting and retaining women, and promoting gender equality? We spoke to four women who work in the industry, to discover some ways in which the gap can be bridged.


Jo Williams

Building Consultancy Partner at Sanderson Weatherall and former National Chair of the Association of Women in Property

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Lamorna Trahair-Williams

Mechanical Design Engineer, CBS Engineering

Lamorna has been with CBS Engineering for just over a year. She is in her final year of qualification in Building Services Engineering, which she is undertaking alongside her day to day work.

Prior to this, Lamorna had an eclectic career as a police officer before she retrained as a heating engineer. A significant wrist injury meant that working on the tools was no longer viable, hence the route taken as a design engineer.

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Anonymous

“If I put my name to this, my career will be damaged. Women who speak out are vilified and seen as trouble. I wish we could change that.”

Rachel Bell

Architect, Head of Business Development and Director at Stride Treglown

Beyond her role, Rachel supports numerous initiatives. She is currently on the SW Regional Board for LandAid and is National Chair for Women in Property. As a visible industry role model, Rachel has won many awards and accolades for her contributions. ‘Stand Tall’ is her mantra – something she encourages everyone to do.

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Why do you think the construction industry has fallen so far behind other industries in attracting and retaining women?

ANON: There is a patriarchal culture within the construction industry that is disseminated down from politics, enterprise & business. I myself have found myself paid significantly less than my male counterparts for the same – if not more – responsible roles.

I have also suffered extreme and totally toxic sexism in an industry which can be heavily dominated by drinking, sex dominated entertainment and male sports (rugby, golf etc.) and “banter”. We are a male dominated industry because woman are not attracted to an openly sexist industry (think wolf whistling) and the hours, physical requirements and it being an “unclean” environment. It is simply not attractive.

I’ve lost count of the number of interviews I have been to and openly asked if I intended to get pregnant or have more children and how would I manage childcare when I would be expected to work hours as required. We are seen as worth less and more trouble to manage.

LT-W: There is certainly still a very male orientated environment in a lot of sectors of construction – and particularly on sites. That can be a daunting prospect as a female; you do need to be quite thick skinned, and that can be a significant challenge when you are also young in your career (regardless of your actual age!).

RB: The industry has a poor perception problem and, although much has improved, there is still a lot of work to be done. In terms of attracting young women to the industry, we know that a clear career path, training and mentoring are really important.  

An honest, trusting work environment will reap dividends for both parties, in terms of loyalty, staff retention and the bottom line. We also know that strong role models have a very positive impact on younger people, whatever their sector or walk of life. But, if you don’t retain women in the first place, there won’t be that top layer of female role models, which in itself is a disincentive – there will be no visibility of senior women, to whom young women can aspire.

JW: There are small cracks in the glass ceiling, but without the women coming into the industry, and gaining some critical mass, the pay gaps will remain and those cracks in the glass wont get any bigger. We can see in some professions the statistics are better than others and I think this is down to the number of women starting to reach more senior roles. We need to continue to raise awareness of the gap and continue to push ourselves up the ladder.

The construction industry is dealing with an image problem. It’s not just about women but it struggles to attract professionally qualified men and ethnicities too into specialist, management and leadership roles. The industry tends to be reactive to its image for many years whereas other industries project a consistent attractive image which is in direct competition to ours. It’s no wonder that women don’t consider it when thinking about a career.

ANON: Construction is still seen as something you do if you are not academic and as last choice job (labouring). The absence of hands on, vocational skills in schools encourages no one whereas hairdressing, beauty etc. has boomed.

Show me a teacher or headteacher who has any experience or understanding of the construction industry who promotes it with young men let alone women. Most who may have come from a trade background will tell you not to touch it with a bargepole.

Show me teachers who genuinely encourage girls to explore the more technical subjects such as physics and maths. As an extremely academic female student I was directed towards medicine, law or teaching. As it happens I came from a military family and that’s what I followed. I have always worked in male dominated industries.

RB: You have to go right back, to school, when girls and boys start to form their own opinions about life and each other.  This is the time when the fantastic range of career options can be opened up to them, so they understand that girls are more than capable of being structural engineers, architects and construction managers.  There are no such things as jobs for girls and jobs for boys. Women in Property runs Outreach programmes in schools, to do just this.

LT-W: There are a huge number of misconceptions about working in the construction industry – and therefore a real lack of awareness of the variety of roles available. Whilst I’d really like to hope that careers advice has changed in the 18 years since I left school, it was certainly not something that was ever mentioned to me as a route. This is despite being someone who studied design technology at A-Level and was infinitely at home in a practical environment.

A real understanding of the roles available and promoting them to school/college leavers is where it has to start. Presenting a career such as mechanical engineering to young women is critical.

I also feel that the industry is well placed to accommodate more women wishing to change the course of their careers – the transferable skillset from the police to construction roles is significant. Schemes such as those available for Army leavers are brilliant but should be applied to a wider demographic of roles to allow companies to appreciate the experiences of those wishing to transfer.

JW: It takes time, even generations, to change attitudes and expectations. Women are not led to consider construction as a career and from a young age become set into other career goals and aspirations, or worse no career aspirations at all.

The efforts to promote STEM careers to school girls is starting to see change as these inspired girls come into the workforce but there are other professions that aren’t well known and still missing out on attracting the talent pool. We need to positively promote construction career opportunities to the next generation and provide them support and role models to encourage their choices and progression.

LT-W: Understandably though, I think women tend to be drawn to roles where there are other women around them to work alongside. However, encouraging those who are already in roles within construction to consider other routes should be a priority within companies. They have the ability to find out the realities of different roles and be mentored through any career change from the outset and a company has the opportunity to develop talent from within – which also assists with the retention of employees.

I think that the opportunities available to women in trades is slowly becoming more visible –I initially trained as a heating engineer and know a number of other women who have done so. Although we were very much in the minority – I certainly didn’t feel like I was the only one. The benefits of pursuing a career in a trade such as this are huge – the opportunity to be self employed from an early stage, and therefore have the flexibility of working hours that suit your commitments to a family, is something that many job roles simply don’t allow for in the same manner.


With the construction sector predominantly made up of men over 40, do you think the industry is still suffering from outdated and sexist views, which could be contributing to the low numbers of women employees?

ANON: Working hours for professionals in our industry are long, and involve lots of out of normal working hour roles. There is a massive networking and social side of our business, and you are expected to be a “teamworker”. I have friends tell me they would love to come networking but simply can not get childcare for school runs etc.

LT-W: There is still an issue with the networking activities which the construction industry undertakes. There is a large boozing culture, work done on the golf course or events being limited to sporting events which are often less popular with women. Perhaps we can look at a wider selection of networking ideas to encourage more inclusivity?

JW: There are still some old-fashioned thinkers in the industry, and these tend to be the older and more senior manager roles, but I also see this in the site-based trades too. When I first started my career, the pre-conceived sexist views were well established. There were hardly any other women on site and I was definitely a novelty. Not all of those “sexist” views were automatically aggressive or disrespectful though, and many older chaps were protective and extremely respectful. They just didn’t see the industry as a place for a woman.

LT-W: My experience predominantly has been that the perception of outdated and sexist views in construction is far far worse than the actual reality. Whilst I would be lying to say its doesn’t exist, it is thankfully something that is a rarity. I would also say that where it does happen, more often than not there will be a strong rebuttal from other men and its generally just not tolerated. The problem however is that the perception still very much exists – and this is a significant factor in putting off women from considering roles in construction.

The only way to start changing that is for both men and women in the industry to keep speaking out against it when it happens, and promoting the realities over the perceptions – giving women opportunities to get out on sites or into construction roles to speak to those actually working in the sector about their experiences.

RB: Some businesses might well still perpetuate these views but, thankfully, we have seen great change over the last several years.  The majority have Considerate Contractor schemes, and a zero-tolerance approach to sexism.

ANON: We need more female advocates for the industry to go in to schools and talk to youngsters. How we do that, and genuinely talk about the sexism and challenges in the industry, is something that needs careful thought.

JW: Change takes time. And those holding the views need to want to change. Young people and women have the opportunity to re-educate those older views by their professionalism in the job and open communication.

RB: There is a great deal of evidence out there that an inclusive workforce is a happier, more productive workforce, resulting in a positive impact on the bottom line; slowly this is being taken on board by employers.


What are the key things that someone working within the industry can do today to help promote inclusivity within their company?

LT-W: Speaking out about our experiences! This changes often incorrect perceptions and allows others to see the depth and breadth of opportunities within the sector. The likes of LinkedIn has opened up the experiences of those of us already in the industry to those possibly considering it. I have used connections made to help form my route in my career and would always be keen to do the same for anyone else.

RB: Talk about it! Call out misogyny, racism, inappropriate behaviour – leave no room for it in your organisation.  If you, as an individual, want to know more about the impact of misogynistic behaviour on women, or what it’s like to be the victim of racist abuse, ask the question of your colleagues. There are no wrong questions and it’s far better to ask and try to understand, rather than make assumptions and continue to get it wrong. Then make sure you act on it.

JW: Be a role model and support others. It can be a lonely place as the only woman in a team; but knowing there’s an achievable goal, and that you have someone to support you, is extremely empowering.

ANON: Flexible working policies! Family commitment mentors for male and female staff, to discuss and support difficulties managing childcare and sex-specific health issues.

LT-W: Ultimately the lived experiences are so much more valuable than careers advice – and there are so many people ready and willing to encourage others into the sector.

Having this open and friendly approach – where you can talk positively about your experiences – is one of the most positive ways of promoting inclusivity, as it not only shows what options are available but actively encourages and mentors those considering it. To that end, I am happy to connect with anyone on LinkedIn who is keen to find out more about opportunities in construction, or suggestions for more inclusive networking opportunities.


How can businesses support women who take a career break to focus on a new family, to ensure they are retained and kept up-to-date with business changes whilst they are away?

ANON: This is a difficult one because most need the complete break. A mentor as mentioned before would be good. A pre maternity/parternity leave meeting about the level of contacts available and how to choose to what extent you would wish to be involved.

RB: Keep in touch with them, be open and positive. Some might prefer not to be contacted, but a simple email update with the latest news and industry developments will help them feel valued and still part of a team. Many Women in Property branches run Networking Parents lunches, for mums and dads – and their children too! They get together, very informally, to chat through how they’re coping with being a parent, whether on parental leave, or juggling work and family.

LT-W: This is a really difficult one, because by the very nature of being on a career break for whatever reason – being kept up to date with business changes and/or industry changes is unlikely to be the priority of the individual involved. When it comes to maternity leave and the impact on a woman’s career that this can have, my views are that a radical overhaul of maternity and paternity leave is required. In this sense, it’s actually that paternity leave needs to be brought up to a parr with maternity leave – giving both parents the opportunity to not only have invaluable time with their child but also to share the impact on careers that this period of time can have.

RB: And remember, it might not be just women who want a career break. Shared Parental Leave is becoming an increasingly popular option, allowing both parents to benefit from taking time out, as well as maintaining their careers.  

LT-W: As an example – in Sweden, parents are entitled to 480 paid parental days per child. This can be split between the parents however they see fit for their circumstances. This allows both parents to maintain a part time role, or for arguments sake enables a woman to return to work sooner than is possible under our existing maternity/paternity rules. It negates the issue of parents often having to rely on the highest earner, with the lower earning parent generally having to be responsible for childcare. As women are at a disadvantage pay wise, this just amplifies the problem.

JW: This relies in part on the culture of each individual business. Some businesses do this well, and that isn’t relatable to the size or structure of the business; but the culture of its leaders. Communication, honesty and transparency is missing in lots of businesses, unfortunately.

Some government regulation would help, but this isn’t the whole solution and we need to foster healthy businesses who respect all their people to achieve a transition to a support career breaks. And men can take career breaks too – its not just a women’s issue. When these breaks are seen as normal by the leadership then processes and other attitudes will start to fall into place.

RB: The key issue has been flexible working, to allow staff – of all genders – to enjoy a healthy work-life balance.  The COVID pandemic has created a step-change in how we all think about work and will, we hope, make it easier for all of us – particularly women – wishing to take a career break to start a family, to pursue a career in the property and construction sector.

ANON: Businesses should introduce policies for adoption, child sickness etc. so parents know where they stand and can put their children first reducing stress levels. Flexible working returns; inclusion and support, not condemnation and impatience. More family-friendly networking and events. The USA gets that right, where we just don’t do it.


Finally, which women in construction have inspired you the most, and why?

JW: I didn’t have any women role models when I started my career. In fact some of the women I did know in those early days were “drawbridge queens” which only inspired me not to be like them! In my early career my best role model was a manager called Steve Brewer, whose equalist attitude, complete belief and support in my abilities and transparency inspired me to be the type of surveyor and leader that he was. To me it’s not about gender, but personality, that inspires me.

ANON: I literally can not think of any who I know who does what I do. At school, and this is very political, it was Margaret Thatcher. Although hated by many, I saw her as an inspiration that any woman, with enough mental capacity and ability to succeed, could. Even if you did not agree with what she did, she did it, and she did as the strongest woman I can think of. Resolute, firm, measured and capable.

Now I do look up to Deborah Meaden and Andrea Leadsom – and her mother, who raised her and her siblings. Cheryl Gillan was amazing when we still had her.

RB: I have been very lucky recently to have some extremely inspiring and motivating experiences through industry events involving amazing women. The first was the National Student Awards for Women in Property, of which I was a judge. I had the pleasure of interviewing 13 brilliant students, and this gave myself and the others judging great pleasure seeing such talent coming into the industry.

The second event was the EG Future Leaders event where nine women from across the built environment, following training, have 10 minutes to talk about a subject in front of a large audience without any notes. I left that event feeling such a buzz, and a renewed energy and passion for our industry. The recording is well worth watching when EG releases it.

LT-W: Whilst this sounds incredibly cheesy, I would have to say my wife. She set out on the construction route early on – achieving degrees in both Architecture and Commercial Management and Quantity Surveying. She has worked her way up from a graduate entry level role in project management to her current position as Associate Director of Cubex – an award winning real estate developer in the South West and Wales.

It was her who suggested that I looked into retraining as a heating engineer when I was considering leaving my career in the police. Her confidence and enthusiasm for me to undertake a trade role led to me starting my journey within the construction industry. Her knowledge, drive and achievements in the sector never fails to amaze me, and her support to me getting to where I am now has been unwavering.

She’s seemingly never seen her gender as a barrier to anything in life, and the recognition of her achievements is testament to the industry judging her on her ability to do her job. Which is, quite simply, the most important thing!

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