Monday, January 21, 2013

The Construction Industry: a suitable place for women?

I was looking through a pile of undergraduate dissertations over the summer and one topic really stood out:

Perceptions of the suitability of a career in the construction industry: an investigation into the views of 16-18 year old women. By Sabrina Spagnoli (BSc Construction Project Management 2011).

It stood out for a couple of reasons: I can remember the distinct lack of imaginative careers advice when I was 16 and I was interested to learn more about how and why women are working in the construction industry and how perceptions of the industry are changing in the 21st century.


Wolf whistling has now been banned on many construction sites (photo courtesy of the Daily Express)

So, on to Sabrina's dissertation (all quotes from the dissertation are shown in italics and are used with Sabrina's permission). The abstract starts with her reasons for selecting the topic: during the course of my degree there has always been a noticeable lack of females studying for a degree in Construction Project Management or related subjects. This became even clearer during the industrial placement year which I undertook during 2010-11, where I met few women who had wanted to study construction at the age of 16-18 years old. 

The main aim of the research was to determine where the views of the construction industry came from and if these views are prominent throughout young women, and also to establish whether a career in construction is even considered at the ages of 16-18.

Sabrina identified three main issues during her research: the poor perception of the industry; the tendency of women to join the industry later on in their career and the lack of education women receive about career choices (including construction). She noted that the majority of women who are employed in the construction industry tend to be in administrative roles - for the purposes of her research, Sabrina did not consider such roles as a career in construction.

Sabrina carried out a literature review which examined the history of women at work from the campaigning work of the suffragettes for equal rights through the second world war where women had to take on traditionally 'male ' jobs, to the feminist movement in the 1960s and the Equal Pay Act of 1975. She then looked at perceptions of women at work, the issues of part-time work and the changing life and career expectations of young women entering the workplace as well as factors that seemed to be influencing career choices (lack of female role models in the science and engineering industries, personal experience, the media, friends and family, subject choice at school).

In order to carry out her research, Sabrina used a combination of focus groups with 16-18 year old women who were in the process of making career choices and also interviews with women who were working in the construction industry. By using this combination she was able to access both pre-career and in-career information and experiences. The questions she asked were designed to investigate the following:

  • Why 16-18 year old women were not choosing a career in the construction industry
  • If there were influences pressuring young people into certain stereotypical career paths
  • If students aged 16-18 were aware of the vast career opportunities connected to a degree in Construction Management

The main findings were that younger women are predominantly choosing subjects which they are taking at school and which they are confident in. Perceptions of the industry are coming from the media and parental influences and, most importantly, first hand experiences. These are having an adverse effect on the construction industry for some women. Consequently, many younger women with the option of studying a degree in Construction Management at university are unlikely to follow this career path because it seems they have a preformed idea of what they want to study for a career in, which doesn't generally include construction.

Moving on to the conclusions and recommendations...

From the examined information, there are gaps in the current knowledge; mainly the amount and quality of the information young people receive when deciding on a career, and whether or not the information is correct and concise on the career paths they will ultimately follow. Generally, young women's perception of the industry seems to be coming from the media. What was also discovered through the research was that women were viewing the construction industry as the stereotypical crude, wolf-whistling builder on site, which most women have the unfortunate experience of. People are not detaching this stereotype from a career in the industry; moreover, the question remains as to why this is. From the findings of this research the reason would seem to be a lack of knowledge and education towards the industry.

The information gathered shows that the construction industry is not making full use of the workforce. The image which the industry currently holds is unattractive to the female workforce and needs to be addressed. Early exposure to the industry through the work placement scheme will help young females see the vast amount of career opportunities which the industry has to offer.

And what about Sabrina herself? I asked her a couple of questions...

First of all, why she decided to do a degree in construction. Her reply: 'I decided to do a degree in construction because I studied some of the construction modules in first year and enjoyed them and was very interested in the modules so decided to switch from real estate to construction. I found the information mainly from websites and I also spoke to a few of the construction tutors who helped me with career paths and potential jobs opportunities with a construction degree'. Sabrina had originally chosen a degree in real estate (based on work experience and advice from family).

Secondly, what can women offer the construction industry? Her reply: 'Women should absolutely be in the construction industry, there is no reason for them not to be. I found from my research that it is generally women who have the idea that there will be sexism in the industry, not men. All women and men have different skills and it would be a great loss to the industry to narrow its potential if women were not in the industry. As the industry is currently at a standstill in regards to the amount of women joining the industry I feel that more women need to be offered the opportunity to join the industry from career advisors at a young age so they can make an informed decision'.

Sounds like a case for more offers of work experience opportunities in construction to students in year 10 or 11 at school. And more events to raise awareness, such as the excellent Schools Challenge that the Department took part in a few years ago where local schools were invited into the Department to take part in a construction challenge in the Workshop.

Schools Challenge 2011 - photo by Franco Cheung


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