Wednesday 4th March 2020
To celebrate International Women’s Day 2020, Heidi Thompson, Executive Director of Homes and Investment discusses women in construction and social housing and shares her views on what the industry can do to attract and retain talented females.
Construction’s image problem
“While gender balance in the social housing sector is pretty good it’s a fact that women in the construction industry are underrepresented across all levels, despite the shortage of skilled workers in the sector. In my homes and investment directorate, which oversees property care, development and compliance, just 15% of the workforce is female and very few of these women are in technical roles, and this imbalance is something I am keen to address.
“I don’t think women often consider a career in construction as roles are often seen as frontline, dirty jobs that don’t pay well. This couldn’t be further from the truth and a perception we need to change. These jobs require highly skilled engineers and construction roles far exceed more than just what you may see on a building site. They include planning, surveying, project management, cost control, communications and marketing, sales, and so on, as well as hands on trades like electricians, joiners and plumbers etc. These professions require extensive training via a number of routes including apprenticeships, degrees, postgraduate education as well as ongoing professional development.
“I believe that if we want to attract more females into the industry it’s important they can see it offers well-paid, rewarding and flexible employment with opportunities to develop as a professional, regardless of gender – and I’m extremely passionate about championing this.”
Attracting new talent
“The issue of low numbers of women in construction goes much further than the industry itself. We need to promote the variety of careers in construction to young people at a much earlier stage in their education, so they can make informed decisions about their career path post 16. This needs to start at primary school age, not left until the final years of school.
“Work experience options for girls were very limited when I was at school. Placements tended to be in traditionally female professions, such as hairdressing or secretarial work, and I don’t think things have progressed that much since then.
“I’m a building surveyor by profession but few school pupils would know what that role actually is let alone know what it does. This also extends to others like building engineer, estimator or quantity surveyor for that matter. This means that very few people actually want to do a work experience stint in them.
“It’s no surprise that this lack of understanding has a knock on effect for the number of young females wanting to pursue a career in the built environment, and we need to change that. I want to raise our industry’s profile with local children and young people, highlighting the successful careers that women can have in it and help diversify our workforce of the future.”
Supporting women to be the best they can be
“I started out as a trainee architectural and surveying assistant, have worked my way up to executive director level and I’m proud to be part of a 75% female senior leadership team here at First Choice Homes. However, construction is still a very male dominated industry and I know it’s not the norm to be a female director. That’s why at this stage in my career I want to support women and help them to be the best they can be.
“While I don’t feel that being female has held me back in my career, I’m sure I’ve had to work harder than my male counterparts to prove I really know my stuff and be taken seriously by my peers.
“Now with the benefit of my experience I want to help ensure females in the industry are protected, developed and given the confidence to achieve what they want to, without being held back – I set up the Women in Social Housing (WISH) group for Yorkshire and Humber region in 2015 to do just that and found this experience so valuable.
“WISH isn’t a stuffy networking group, more a community of encouragement and support for women at any stage in their career. I have personally met some wonderful people through it, made some great friends and seen my own confidence grow thanks to the excellent opportunities the group brings. Men are included, too – as our advocates men play an important role in changing attitudes to women in the industry, breaking down barriers and helping the sector be more inclusive of females and I’m grateful for their support.
“Social housing and construction is a great place for women to thrive and it’s important for us to recognise how far we’ve come in recent years. There’s a lot of work being done to make the industry more inclusive for females and the number of women taking up jobs in construction is growing, albeit slowly. We need to shout louder about the rewarding career opportunities that construction can offer females and give women the support they need to realise their potential, and I’m proud to be playing a role in this.”