Women in construction

Dr. Vanita Ahuja, Professor and Program Director at the School of Construction, RICS SBE Noida talks about the under-representation of women in construction, while also stressing upon the need for women role models.

01 March 2017

Expert Talk
The under-representation of women at senior levels is attributed to several structural and attitudinal barriers which may be gender-centred or organisation-centred and reflect the phenomenon of “glass ceiling”.

Why the topic ‘Women in Construction’? While doing my basic school and college education, I never thought I would be a part of that section of society, which would need a special consideration, a special themed periodical or conference or a thought group. But, after being a professional in the construction industry, I realized that the industry with its working environment somewhere doesn’t provide equal opportunities for women and sadly in spite of being educated, empowered and a privileged member of the society, I am still part of the group which has a themed discussion forum.

Women in the construction industry could be categorized in three groups:

•    Women in professional technical positions like architects, engineers, construction managers etc.
•    Women in administrative positions like finance, HR etc.
•    Women as construction labour/ workforce at site

The distribution of women workforce under these three groups differs between developed and developing countries. For example, since 1997, percentage of women in the UK construction industry, has remained relatively unchanged at between 10 and 14 per cent. 84% of this group holds secretarial posts, whereas only 10% are employed in professional capacity and the remaining 6% are craft and trade level employees at site. Whereas in India 50% of workforce in construction industry is women, but only about 1.4% are engineers, architects, designers and administrators, rest work as construction labour.

Women professionals are able to join the construction industry after their education, but due to its work culture of long and unscheduled working hours and requirement of the staff to travel frequently to the construction sites, they find it difficult to be retained in the industry. Researchers have named it as culture of ‘competitive presenteeism’ and this work culture is not aligned with social and demographic changes occurring in the industry workforce. After initial years of working, due to family commitments women professionals find it difficult to continue with this routine and have requirement of flexible working hours and work from home option. But, construction organisations generally do not promote flexible working hours and women are not able to avail the option of work from home through virtual working environment as construction industry has been slow in embracing IT tools and techniques. EOC (Equal Opportunities

Commission) research in UK shows that in the country about 30,000 women leave their jobs annually on account of poor maternity rights and women from construction industry form a major component of this group. Similar scenario can be seen in India. There are also issues of facilities provided at construction sites. In a survey of Indian Construction industry it was found that at many sites, duty to provide basic sanitation, first-aid facilities and child care facilities is completely ignored. Amongst the surveyed sites, 64% had no toilet facilities and 45% did not even provide drinking water.

Impact of above factors has been globally studied and it is found that though number of women entering the construction industry is increasing, but still overall numbers are not increasing as women leave along the way and this phenomenon is termed as ‘revolving doors syndrome’ or ‘leaky pipeline’ scenario. Also the under-representation of women at senior levels is attributed to several structural and attitudinal barriers which may be gender-centred or organisation-centred and reflect the phenomenon of “glass ceiling”. Globally women in construction perceive that though they may not face major discrimination, but they have to work harder than their male colleagues and have to prove themselves all the time. Studies focused on women entrepreneurs in construction industry have also shown that financial institutions consider women -owned businesses high-risk enterprises and thus women have difficulty in finding capital to finance their projects.

Globally construction industry is facing an ongoing skills shortage and to fill the skills gap, it is required to retain women workforce by changing work environment and providing required organisational level support and family support. Organisations perceive that women have better capabilities for research and design activities and do not involve themselves in groupism or other disruptive activities. Thus, organisations also need to plan complimentary work assignments as per strengths of men and women employees and this would beneficial for the organisation and the industry.
In India, women labour at site are primarily employed as unskilled labour, carrying heavy loads even to higher floors. They are not given opportunity to learn skills like carpentry, masonary work etc. and to move up in the hierarchical system at sites. There is a strong need for skilling of women labour.

In countries like UK and Cuba, very proactive approach has been adopted at national level to counter above discussed issues. For example, studies have documented equality rights for women in the Cuban Constitution –such as equal pay, affirmative action in the workplace, one year's maternity leave on full pay, free day care centres for children, promotion of equality in education and affirmative action in the home through the Family Code. This has helped in increasing participation of women in the Cuban construction industry. Other required initiatives are deputing women in construction committees and portraying women in construction as role models, women involved in decision making specially for issues related to women, flexible work hours, increasing virtual working culture and incentives provided to construction organisations to have diversity in workforce in offices and at work sites.

Globally, architect Zaha Mohammad Hadid(1950 –2016) is one of the most famous women architects. She is known for designing structures with fluid architectural forms. In India some women role models from construction industry are Shakuntala A. Bhagat(1933 –2012), the first woman civil engineer in the country and Annie Sinha Roy, the first and only tunnel engineer in India. Shakuntala was involved in evolving the Quadricon modular bridge system that involves the construction of a prefabricated bridge from standardized modular mass produced steel components. Annie has worked on Bengaluru Metro and is now working in Chennai. She has also gone to Doha for work.
I would like to sum it up with the advice to all young women in the industry that support should only be a facilitating factor, there also needs to be an inner resolve of embracing the requirements of construction industry and excelling with the inherent strengths that women have.