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Opportunities for women

The construction industry is lagging behind most industries in its approach to attracting and retaining women, claims Louise Williamson, but it cannot continue doing so for much longer.

We are approaching a skills shortage in construction and it seems unlikely that companies will continue to ignore half the population when recruiting new staff. With the Egan reforms being taken on board most companies are now moving towards change and have begun to realise that valuing staff is the key to business success.

To attract women away from other industry sectors, construction companies will soon have to offer better packages including, for example, flexible benefit schemes with optional child care vouchers, flexible working hours, opportunities for part-time work and career break policies. They should be encouraging working from home when it suits the individual and the job, job sharing, maternity/paternity/ carer leave and training in equal opportunities as part of management training schemes.

One of the biggest steps companies could take would be adopting a competence based selection process for staff. When a major retail company introduced a transparent system of appraisal, judged fair by both men and women, it led to an increase in female managers from 23 to 33 per cent.

At Birse Construction we have already recognised the benefits of diversity. We acknowledge that, in general, women have better interpersonal and negotiating skills than men, tend to be less competitive and have a more cooperative attitude. Having mixed gender teams encourages people to express themselves and reduces the likelihood of 'macho' behaviour.

Birse will achieve equality and diversity in a series of small steps. We have two female directors and several senior female managers, and have been listed in the Corporate Research Foundation's 'Britain's Top 100 employers' for the second year running. We encourage all our staff to maintain a good balance between work and home life. This is going to take time to achieve when people are used to the industry's long hour culture, which we recognise is not necessarily productive.

Women will have to help themselves to some extent to exploit future opportunities. They must take pride in their achievements, be ambitious and get the right qualifications.

Do not give up on a social life and children but be determined and get the balance right. Do not be impatient and do not just opt out.

Women have natural stamina, creativity and commitment, all of which go a long way to achieving business success.

Louise Williamson is a director of Birse Construction and a spokesperson for Change the Face of Construction, a practical programme to help improve day-to-day working conditions in the industry through positive action to encourage greater diversity in the workforce.

Visit the Change the Face of Construction website at www.change-construction.org or email contact@change-construction.org.

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