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Women in Construction Resource Library

06 Sep 2023

BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL How to retain women in building surveying

BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL How to retain women in building surveying
Why do women leave the discipline – and how can we offer them more secure and rewarding positions to improve retention?

In his foreword to The chartered surveyor: his training and his work in 1932, Winston Churchill hoped that a continuous flow of people would be attracted to the career: 'One cannot easily think of a more agreeable profession for a young civilian.'

Although the original title may imply that there were only male surveyors, the first woman to qualify – Irene Barclay – did so in 1922, a decade earlier. Today, 18% of RICS chartered surveyors are female.

Despite Churchill's positive comments about the profession, though, we are almost a century later facing a widely recognised skills shortage. Eunomia's 2021 Building skills for net zero report, for the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), identified surveying as critically constrained and in need of major investment.

With the average age of qualified surveyors being 55, the profession's skills shortage is likely to be exacerbated over the next decade unless sufficient talent enters and progresses.

Women deterred despite diversity drive

Although the surveying profession has recognised the benefits of inclusive and diverse teams, the proportion of female building surveyors remains much lower than in surveying overall.

Recent research by Sinéad Clarkson, Lucy Hind and Sambo Lyson Zulu has emphasised that, across all sectors, European women are more likely than men to contribute greater time to domestic tasks outside their day job.

Although this is based on older research by McKinsey, it may be one potential factor affecting the proportion of women in surveying.

Alternative pathways preferred to building surveying

Our focus, however, has been on women's experiences of working as building surveyors. We spoke to a number of such professionals to understand some of their experiences. 

While not statistically significant or generalisable, these discussions may provide some anecdotal insights and useful reflections.

One of these professionals was Sarah. She works as a senior building surveyor, and wanted to emphasise: 'The vast majority of my experiences are positive, and I really love my job.'

So why is there a smaller proportion of female building surveyors than there are women in other surveying disciplines?

We know one reason is that some female building surveyors don't leave surveying, but make the transition to other pathways such as project management.

Alice, for instance, is a chartered building surveyor who now works as a senior project manager.

She explained: 'I found project management paid better money than a role as a senior building surveyor… [My] technical training in building surveying has been immensely advantageous when employed as a project manager. I regularly use my technical skills throughout the projects I manage, and do not believe I could do my role without this knowledge and experience.

'For me, my job title as a senior project manager is not important; I identify as a chartered building surveyor, and I'm proud of my professional qualifications. However, for some of my friends it is an issue because they want to be seen as an expert, which is understandable.'


Opportunities for teamwork favoured

Although in Alice's experience project management paid her more, it isn't just about salary. She also said working as part of a team can be a particular attraction, and seeing the impact of your work on others.

'I find working with a team of professionals … and solving problems together to be very fulfilling and enjoyable,' she added. 'I enjoy seeing projects from inception to completion and occupation [,] building the community that comes with [working on] a project, and empowering my teammates to overcome the inevitable … complications.'

This isn't to say that building surveyors don't work as part of a team; every professional's experiences and motivations will be different. 

But the need to find work fulfilling and enjoyable is something noted by Clarkson et al., who identified that low job satisfaction may also contribute to the high attrition rates for women in the construction industry.

Barriers can be subtle as well as overt

A 2018 Harvard Business Review article on female engineers found that reasons for leaving the profession can be overt – such as gender discrimination or harassment – or subtle, with women feeling their contributions and skill sets were less valued than those of their male counterparts.

Subtle stressors such as these can be exhausting when experienced on a daily basis.

Alice commented that 'other areas of building surveying [such as] dilapidations I didn't find very welcoming’ while Sarah noted that 'there are times when I've been addressed in ways I think can be patronising or less respectful than I'd expect. It makes me wonder [whether] it's because of my gender or because I'm younger or less senior. While it's [difficult] to know, it can really [have an] impact on my confidence in my abilities.'

Culture and structure hamper career progression

In research across occupations carried out by LinkedIn in 2015, women's concerns about the lack of opportunities for advancement and dissatisfaction with senior leadership or work culture was reportedly prompting them to leave organisations.

Barriers to career progression in the construction industry for women in comparison with men have also been cited in research by Nirodha Gayani Fernando, Dilanthi Amaratunga and Richard Haigh published in 2014; they identified an 'invisible barrier to women's mobility to top decision-making positions'.

As Alice put it: 'Leaving a job is sometimes the only way to progress. In my experience in private consultancy, I have not often seen a female graduate progress to associate level as fast as male peers [after becoming chartered].'

This is not a new issue. In 2001, Louise Ellison published research exploring why there was a 'chronic shortage' of women in senior management roles in surveying.

She found that female surveyors were highly educated and vigorous in applying for promotion, countering theories posited in earlier research.

Furthermore, among those who responded to her survey – 358 female and 249 male surveyors – the majority of women had no intention of giving up their career for motherhood. Nevertheless, that assumption anecdotally appears to persist, even today.

Ellison concluded that organisational structures in some form prevent promotion and that, despite equality policies, gender imbalance is one kind of organisational barrier.

Although it is unclear whether this remains the case, it is still an important consideration for those looking to retain female surveyors.

'The majority of women had no intention of giving up their career for motherhood – but that assumption appears to persist'

Career breaks and flexible working frowned on

Those choosing to take a career break may face negative perceptions when it comes to progression as well.

Reflecting on her return to building surveying in private consultancy after maternity leave, Sarah said: 'I felt I was no longer viewed as wanting to progress my career. Working three days a week in private practice felt like an issue, with clients expecting [me] to be on call all the time.'

As awareness of the importance of a work–life balance increases – and growing numbers of parents sharing childcare – work flexibility and managing expectations are likewise important.

Alice commented: 'Project management is probably slightly more flexible [when it comes to] having a family, as the nature of the role means remote and flexible working is more accessible.

'Core building surveying activities such as surveys or inspections – which may take all day, if not days, to complete and are located far from home, requiring overnight stays – can be more challenging with a family.'

The seismic shift in working styles since the start of the pandemic, including greater use of online meeting platforms, appears to have resulted in greater job flexibility for many professionals across the industry, though.

For example, some split their time between working from home and the office, or work compressed hours or fewer days. Such opportunities not only benefit female professionals but all working parents, or those with caring responsibilities or other commitments.

Indeed, a male building surveyor we spoke to, Steve, mentioned he had reduced his work week so he could care for his young daughter.

'Before the pandemic I negotiated a four-day week … to spend as much time as possible with my young daughter while also reducing the already staggering cost of childcare. Although [my request] was received with raised eyebrows by my male superiors, I found support with a female director and am fortunate to have been able to work part-time for the first four years of my daughter's life.

‘The arrival of the pandemic brought a noticeable change in perspective on part-time or remote working ... Most of my colleagues have taken up this opportunity and … our clients continue to provide positive feedback on the service that they receive, and it has not had an impact on productivity.'

Steve is not alone: research by Macdonald & Company last year found that real-estate employees ranked work–life balance and flexible location as the most valued perk of their current roles.

Source: RICS

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