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International Women’s Day 2021: Women In Construction

March 2021

Written by Romy Rawlings, Chartered Landscape Architect and Commercial Director for Vestre

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        As some background, my approach to this subject comes from my position as a Landscape Architect and, for the last 14 years, roles in sales/marketing for landscape product manufacturers. I’ve worked in this sector for 30 years so, sadly, have plenty of personal experience upon which to draw. Of course, everyone’s experience is different, and I know some women feel completely unhindered by their gender in their professional life. Sadly, that’s not been my experience, nor many, many others’.

        To be clear, I feel very fortunate in my current role with a Norwegian manufacturer of outdoor furniture, as their UK commercial director. But while I’ve seen many changes over my career, and huge improvements in areas such as health and safety, I continue to be disappointed (and occasionally horrified) by the ongoing lack of gender equality. I’ll be using landscape architecture as a barometer, but the same issues apply across the construction sector.

        Many people believe the problem areas to be threefold: recruitment, retention, and recognition. Although what needs to be done about each seems clear, we’re moving forward at a snail’s pace.

        So, recruitment…

        For female landscape architects, student membership is dominated by women at 57%:43%. This is a very healthy gender balance compared to engineering, where graduate intake of women is closer to 16%: a huge imbalance from the start. Site based roles in construction barely exist for women: estimates range between 11% women (including admin roles) to 1% for those physically working on sites. Overall, as an industry, we know construction is not appealing to young people, even less so to women. And, unsurprisingly, we have a major skills shortage – perhaps exacerbated by inadvertently excluding almost 50% of the female population?

        Onto retention…

        Whether based on site or in a plush office environment, many women will find themselves working in overwhelmingly male teams. This brings common challenges that range from outright abuse (physical touching, name-calling etc) to more subtle forms of sexism including ‘mansplaining’, or men accepting a woman’s suggestion only when it’s repeated/verified by a male colleague. Unfortunately, as for most women I know, I’ve experienced my fair share of MeToo moments.

        For many women (and I’m one of them), having children can have a huge impact on working life: the limited availability and high cost of childcare in the UK can force women into part time (and lower paid) roles. Consider the following on the gender pay gap…

        Most female landscape architects will work in teams of approx. 50:50 men and women, and salaries up to £50K are very nearly at gender parity. However, as women progress, significant inequalities become clearer. There are more than twice as many men as women in the £50-100K band (20.4% male against 9.4% female). It’s even worse at £100K+, where only 1 woman vs 14 men was identified in a recent Landscape Institute survey.

        Unfortunately, the construction sector has been highlighted as the worst offender in terms of the gender pay gap, where men are paid an average 23% more than women. And in case you missed it, due to coronavirus, enforcement of gender pay gap reporting was suspended for 2019/20, meaning we’ve taken a further step backward. Not helpful when current estimates are that it could take 100 years or more to close the gender pay gap in the UK.

        And recognition…

        Progression, or lack of it, in a woman’s career, shines a light on the real issues here. Take a moment to digest this:

        There are more people called Steve leading FTSE 100 companies than women.

        Those in positions of power, at the most senior levels are predominantly male, and we know that people appoint and promote people like themselves. This unconscious bias extends into ‘water cooler moments’ where if you cannot engage in conversations about cars, football or golf… you may find yourself overlooked in the next round of promotions. These toxic working environments are not supportive of most women.

        Outside the office, these disparities are exacerbated by expert panels and industry commentators in our sector being (almost always) male – also generally white and middle aged. You could be forgiven for assuming there are no senior women in our sector – where are the role models to attract women in the first place, and give them something to aim for?

        So, what can we (you) do?

        As an employee of a Scandinavian company, it’s been fascinating to see the cultural differences that exist – both in and out of work. It’s well documented that Scandinavians have the highest proportions of female representation in upper management and in Norway it’s mandated that 40% of all Board members in large companies are women. The main reason Norway is a wealthy country is due to their large work force, including a high proportion of women. 85% of Norwegian GDP is down to human capital; only 12% from oil and gas. Kindergarten is very cheap, meaning both parents can work and maternity/paternity allowances are higher and longer than ours. All this ensures gender equality at home and work – and we should lobby for similar here.

        Once we recognise that our sector is not representative of society, we must surely do more to address this. Unconscious bias training, ensuring representative and gender-balanced speaker panels, and highlighting successful senior women will all help.

        It’s important to highlight another point here: from an economic viewpoint, encouraging more women into the sector isn’t just about ticking a diversity box. There is considerable evidence that the most gender diverse businesses are 20% more likely than the least diverse to enjoy above average financial performance.

        It’s clear that women have much to offer every part of our sector. Surely it’s time we were treated as equals – in terms of opportunities, pay, and respect. If you feel we already are, and question any of the above (or even the need for International Women’s Day), please think again and book that unconscious bias training.

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