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Diversity in Construction Resource Library

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04 Oct 2023

Diversity – Are these our true colours?

Diversity – Are these our true colours?
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.

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!”  

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.

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Source: Construction Management
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