The construction industry’s gender equality is slowly but surely making progress. Data from a study that was conducted in 2018 shows the overall percentage of women on boards was around 22%. Although a small percentage, this number is higher than it was in 2013 where a similar report highlighted that only 13% of board members were women.
Over the past few years, a focus has been on rebalancing the industry’s gender disparity, by looking at potential career progressions and targeting pay gaps. But another factor which is rarely spoken of is the way language can negatively impact the representation of women in the sector. With this in mind, what can be done to raise awareness on the unconscious biases in the industry in order to achieve a more equal world for all?
Whilst industries across the world are step-by-step moving towards greater equality, it is important to remember that change does not come overnight. Combatting problematic, systematic gender inequalities is a long and complex process, and it will take time for us to reach the ideal. Furthermore, we are quite early on in the movement which means that much of the research hasn’t been completed yet. In this sense it is quite a dynamic time – we are seeing positive change happen before our very eyes!
This gap in the research led me to conduct a study which looked at the systematic gendering in the language that is used within the construction industry. Part of my leadership and professional development degree, this small-scale three-month research project was designed to gain a better understanding of the unconscious biases that are perpetuated by both men and women in the construction industry. Half of my participants were men, the other women. There were variations in personnel, hierarchy and sectors within the construction industry. This was important to me as I wanted the study to be as representational as possible.
My findings presented interesting results. Whilst on the whole men believed that there wasn’t a problem per se in the construction industry, many felt that better training schemes could be implemented to change the language that is used to address women in constructional sectors.
My study also showed that the majority of the time, men were simply unaware of the impact of their words on women. This is as a result of the unconscious biases in the sector that are perpetuated by people of all trades and levels.
Female participants also highlighted that they were often the only woman in a meeting room. Whilst this isn’t a bias, it does impact the way women are seen and understood in the sector, and reinforces the idea that construction is still very much dominated by men.
What are the recommendations going forward?
Gender inequality is a deep-rooted issue which will take time to undo. To create the change that is needed and bring everyone on the same page, we must all be aware of the problematic unconscious biases that afflict the industry. Many women like me are very happy to participate in what’s considered harmless ‘banter’ between colleagues, once a relationship has been formed. Language is heavily situational and rooted in context, and that can often be the distinction between a ‘joke’ and a more serious comment.
My recommendations going forward is that there needs to be more training and education. Having female industry champions would be of a great help, and seeing more women in leadership roles would inspire those entering the sector. Whether it is through HR or equality practitioners reviewing policies, or taking training schemes to networking events, the possibilities are endless.
Change can be on all manner of scale. Yet a very simple approach would be for senior staff members to make men and women aware of the language that can and cannot be used to address a female. A short seminar or meeting in which conversations can be had would make a huge difference.
Circulating findings such as mine would be of benefit from an educational perspective; publishing to large organisations within the construction industry, key players and influencers will drive the industry-wide change that is urgently needed. Lendlease is an example of a construction company that was one of the first in the industry to be awarded the ‘National Equality Standard’ in 2017. The rest of the industry at every level should be aiming for this too.
Gender equality advisors could be a further option in cases where women and men feel they cannot speak-up about their experiences. The reason why many females shy away from calling-out prejudiced language is because they fear negative repercussions. This situation is a disadvantage to everyone; women do not get the chance to address the issue, which means that the language causing the harm will still be perpetuated by men who are none the wiser. Here, it is again the responsibility of senior members to set a precedence for others to follow, creating inclusive rather than divisive working environments for everyone’s benefit.
More importantly, to really get a hold of the gender inequalities we have to start taking a more integrated approach. The industry already knows the problem with siloed thinking – it doesn’t pay to be separationist – and at the moment women are presented in simply a different category to men, even though the jobs they do and the way they work are the same. By eliminating this barrier, the equality which the industry desires might become a little closer.