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BAME women can build

CHANGE: Damilola Ola is one of the few BAME women in construction - something that CITB are trying to change

AS PART of International Women’s Day (Mar 8), we are celebrating the contribution that women make to construction. But we are also highlighting that as a sector, we still attract too few women, particularly from a BAME background. This has to change.

Looking forward, construction must grow more of its own workforce and reduce its reliance on importing the skills that we need. With the growing range of opportunities from the traditional trades, professional roles and new digital skill needs, we have a better chance than ever to make progress.

Our first female Chief Executive Sarah Beale has had her own 14-year journey from middle-management to the top job in guiding a major organisation that supports apprenticeships and other critical training for the industry.

Under Beale’s leadership, CITB has begun focusing on how to help construction modernise and become more diverse. Part of the challenge is to attract more women from the BAME community into a rapidly-evolving construction sector where innovation, creativity and leadership are essential.

Beale completed her own qualifications while working, rather than going down a full-time academic route. “I was lucky enough to be taken on first by one great employer and then another,” she says. “Both of them fully supported work placed learning and training, whilst I attended college to secure the qualifications I needed.”

In the course of her rise to her current position, Beale has witnessed huge improvements in the industry. “Construction has changed massively. When I first entered the sector I did hear a few unacceptable comments. It can make anyone uncomfortable to confront prejudice in their chosen industry.

“Over time, I’ve witnessed less overt prejudice and feel that it’s becoming more the exception than the rule. Part of that is a result of fostering a culture in the industry that we would like to see. At CITB, diversity is a core value. There’s simply no place for the mentality of a ‘boys only’ club.”

The ethnic and gender balance in construction is changing too, due to the demand for skills and demographic shifts in Britain’s towns and cities. The industry is set for expansion of at least 1.3% over the next few years, creating thousands of new jobs. Beale explains the industry’s critical skills needs and how they can be met to keep construction moving.

“Right now, it’s estimated that around 400,000 construction workers are making the transition into retirement,” states Beale. “Our forecasts show the industry needs to recruit 168,500 people over the next five years, and employers want candidates with the right skills, qualifications and attitude to get the job done.”

According to GoConstruct, around 14% of construction workers are women, a figure that seems certain to rise. CITB has conducted extensive research into how construction can make itself more attractive to under-represented groups, and tap into new pools of talent. One important task is dispelling misconceptions about the industry, and showing just how female candidates and those from BAME backgrounds can fit into it.

“Women might think construction is only about getting our hands dirty,” Beale explains. “And some of it is, for those who enjoy being on site and laying the foundations of new homes, transport hubs or commercial centres.

“But there are a host of other roles, from technical jobs, professional and supervisory roles, office-based support functions through to an increasing number of digital and creative jobs.”

“We’re tackling two key challenges,” she continues. “I see these as recruitment and retention. Under-represented groups like young Afro-Caribbean women need to be actively recruited.

“There are over 150 different career paths within construction, many of them highly-skilled and with incredible prospects for progression. And once women are invested in an industry career, more effort needs to be made to retain them.”

PROSPECTS

Retention comes through offering progression and career prospects, but also by making construction workplaces more welcoming. It wasn’t so long ago that many sites had no female changing rooms, meaning some women had to change into protective work clothing using cars or the toilets in local cafes.
“I’m encouraged by the increase in social and cultural awareness in construction,” says Beale. “I’m not saying we’re there yet, but we’ve come a long way and it’s great seeing so many young women, particularly women of colour following their aspirations.

“Let’s talk about creating an industry attractive to everyone - regardless of gender, race or age. It’s crucial for business that people can bring their whole selves to work. It’s a culture we’re working hard to cultivate and sustain.”

Beale’s take on this cultural shift is supported by 24-year-old apprentice Danielle Harley-Laws, whose heritage is Afro-Caribbean. A management trainee construction manager with Willmott-Dixon in London, Laws is a Level 3 apprentice who spends one day a week at East Surrey College. The rest of the time she works on a large site in Streatham, where the workforce is predominantly male.

“It’s true there aren’t many women onsite,” she says, “but the men have been very welcoming and have shown me the ropes. Willmott Dixon is a good place for women to work. They have a culture of acceptance. I really enjoy my work.”

None of Law’s family works within the industry but their reaction was positive. “My family have been really supportive. They don’t mind what I do as long as I’m happy. Some of my friends were a bit surprised when I told them, but they were supportive too and now one of them wants to join the construction industry.”

Laws had originally hoped to become an engineer, but at school was advised to consider construction because the prospects were better. She believes more young women would consider construction if more was done in schools to make them aware that the industry is changing fast.

BELONGINGI

Beale explains that what may seem like simple changes can make a big difference to helping individuals feel they belong in the industry. For example, companies who provide protective equipment – including hi-vis jackets and boots - that not only fit women properly, but meet cultural and religious requirements, like accommodating a headscarf. But she says the industry still has a long way to go.

“We need to tap into women’s potential and present construction as a positive, rewarding career, not just for BAME women, but for all women, and people from all different backgrounds,” says Beale.

“Hopefully, I’m not viewed simply according to my gender - I’m seen as a senior professional who knows the industry. Certainly I feel my peers respect me and treat me as robustly as they would treat anyone else – and I give as good as I get. We certainly need more positive role models from under-represented communities. At CITB, I think we’re making a good start.”

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