We must not let the covid-19 recession risk progress on female representation in construction, says Phoebe McCulloch
The construction sector has the lowest proportion of female workers of any industry in the UK economy – just 13% of its 2.3 million-strong workforce are women. But this hasn’t gone unnoticed, and the past 10 years have brought progress as the sector slowly works to address this imbalance and encourage more women into the sector.
In the past decade, female representation has increased in every occupational area within construction except for administrative and secretarial operations, where women were already over-represented. Crucially, significant improvements have been made in professional and tech occupations, with the proportion of women in these roles up by approximately 8.0 percentage points. Speaking from my own experience, the adoption of new technologies, coupled with a greater focus on diversity and inclusion, is making the construction sector a more attractive career choice.
Training schemes are also having an impact. Female take-up of apprenticeship schemes is growing – ONS data reveals the number of female construction trainees in the 2019/20 academic year was up 19% on the previous 12 months, and a staggering 333% on 2014/15.
Employment in construction, by gender (quarter on year percentage change)
Yet there are concerns that female construction workers are more likely to be economically and financially disadvantaged by the post-covid recession, which threatens to derail this progress. Following the global financial crisis in 2008, the rate at which women left the construction sector was almost twice that of men –
dropping 30.4% from peak to trough compared to 17.4%.
UK construction employment proportions, by occupations
Encouragingly, there are early signs that the downturn brought on by the pandemic has so far bucked this trend. From Q1 to Q3 2020, female employment has only dropped by 4.3%, whereas the number of men employed in construction has fallen by 6.4%, as government support schemes, loans and subsidies help to support jobs.
Nonetheless, it is vital that the industry doesn’t take its eye off the ball when it comes to recruiting and retaining female talent. As construction looks to shore up capacity – and increase productivity – for the economic recovery ahead, women remain a significant pool of untapped potential.
Phoebe McCulloch is a data analyst at Turner & Townsend.