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Why does gender inclusion matter to the Construction industry?

Why does gender inclusion matter to the Construction industry? 

Thinking out loud with Tamsin James, Head of Brand & Marketing | Why does gender inclusion matter to the Construction industry? Insights from the Shine Team

Digging deeper into the challenges for gender equality and why it matters to specific industries, this time we focus on Construction, examining the business case, and the impact on communities and the wider world. 

Think of Construction and you may think of stereotypes, arguably more so than with other sectors. Yet for people working within this world, whilst change has been slow, there is increased awareness of why diversity is the answer to innovation and growth – for employees, for the marketplace and for the general population. 

At the recent London Build Expo at Kensington Olympia, Paul Smith of the UK Public Sector Procurement Provider LHC, summed this up brilliantly. “When you limit who you include, you limit what you can solve.” 

So, what does greater inclusion throughout the industry involve? 

Designing and building spaces that actually deliver for the people using them. 

Let’s start here, because, ultimately, it will be demand that drives the need for the industry to truly become more diverse and inclusive. As the world’s population reached 8 billion this week, let’s look ahead to the next milestone. Muyiwa Oki, the 2022 RIBA President Elect and Architect at MACE, explains that by 2100 the global population looks set to reach 11 billion, and to create enough space for these extra people, we will have to build the equivalent of New York City, every year, for the next 40 years.  

If you’ve ever read the critical book Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez OBE, you’ll understand that the entire way the civilised world has been built, has taken into consideration the ‘default man’. There’s a reason that the pavement you’re struggling to push a pram along is too narrow, or that the bus stop you’re stood in feeling unsafe is not lit up sufficiently. It’s because the needs of 50% of the population have been ignored at the planning stage, because they weren’t in the room to influence decision making.  

It’s said that if you create anything to cater for accessibility, then you create for all. Imagine a world where women and children feel safe. Where signs, symbols and design references aren’t biased or triggering. Where everyone exists in spaces that they can belong and thrive. The Austrian Urban Planner Eva Kail is a master of this and has popularised the concept of ‘gender mainstreaming’ throughout the city of Vienna.

It’s not just ethically the right thing to do, but it also means that construction is fulfilling its purpose. Is it not better to create spaces that 100% of the population can use, not just a section of society? 

Making the industry an attractive place to work, and stay working, for all. 

All of this growth requires new talent. New talent with new skills – greater innovation and diversity of thought. Carrying on as ‘business as usual’ will simply not work. It’s estimated that in the UK alone, growth and progress towards net zero means that more than a quarter of a million extra construction workers will be needed by 2025. New people are required to join the industry, and once they’re there, they need to feel compelled to stay.  

Companies need to work hard to break down stereotypes of the types of people that typically thrive in a career in construction. But before that, basic barriers need to be removed, particularly for on-site workers where the biggest gender gap exists. (In the UK 11% of the Construction industry identifies as women, with only 1% working on-site). For example, many sites don’t have women-specific toilets, sometimes at best providing a single disabled facility amongst men-specific toilets that women are unable to use.  

More women are needed across the full pipeline, but when they are a part of the industry, there exists the drop-off at the mid-senior level that we see across all sectors. It’s occurred within every single client we’ve started working with and comes down to the fact that when you work within a system that isn’t designed for you, it’s exhausting. Add that to the juggle of responsibilities which more women than men tend to face at this stage in their lives, and there’s a significant impact to confidence. When your confidence is knocked, it affects your ability to influence – and because of this loss of women’s voices, wider cultures do not change. In an industry like Construction where less women are represented in the first place, this is amplified. 

Even when companies are recognising the need to create inclusive policies and commitments to evolve their systems and processes, unless behavioural change sits at the heart of this, impact will be slow. Connecting ERGS to collectively strive for inclusion creates power, but only if you have allies at the most senior levels (who are typically white and male) championing inclusive initiatives and role modelling inclusive behaviours, creating a ripple effect throughout an organisation. 

Once you have this in place, if you are encouraging diverse talent at the start of the pipeline, you can be confident that their expectations of an inclusive culture will match their experience of working for your organisation. If not, they will leave and again the pipeline remains broken. The leading global construction technology company NBS recently surveyed 2,000 18-29 year olds across the UK and found that over a third want to build ‘a better physical world’ through a career in construction, and over 20% of them identify as women. 57% of women also stated that they consider construction to be a generally diverse industry. As personal attitudes are changing, it’s critical that companies deliver on their promises.

Driving inclusion through the entire supply chain and supporting one another in this process. 

One of the challenges of being an inclusive Construction Provider, is finding suppliers that also adhere to inclusive standards, whilst influencing client practice at the same time as meeting their needs. And this can be difficult for suppliers to navigate, particularly SMEs who are already struggling against higher fuel and material costs and therefore have limited budgets for training and development.  

Luckily there are increasingly a range of free resources out there, such as videos, tools and templates. There are also simple measures that can be implemented, such as building inclusive practices into contracts, and industry-wide commitments that raise the bar for everyone. 

The public sector should think bigger, and rather than looking at inclusion on a micro level, project by project, embrace the opportunity to transform entire cities, which cater for the communities that live there. 

Simply, to do nothing at all is fast-becoming unacceptable. 

Seizing the opportunity to build back better. 

At COP27, which is also taking place as we write this, gender has become an integral part of the climate change agenda. It’s now more widely recognised that the two are critically linked: women are most affected by the impact of climate change, and proven to be integral to driving the change needed to address this impact, within government and business. 

The UN states that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. Where do these people go? The Construction industry, as a major contributor to climate change, has a responsibility to build back better for communities – not to repeat the mistakes of the past by continuing old patterns.  

Share this article with your colleagues and the people around you and encourage a healthy discussion. And for anything else, follow us on social media or get in touch via email but remember when women thrive, men thrive, business thrives.  

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