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Women in construction

ICE President George Fleming wants to encourage more women to become civil engineers. One way of doing this is for construction employers to use positive action - removing barriers which prevent women joining the profession. This week we ask: Is positive


Helen Stone, consultant and founder member of Change the Face of Construction Less than 2% of qualified civil engineers are female - an extraordinary gender imbalance in the 21st century.

Over the last 30 years increasing numbers of women have entered the profession and currently about 15% of graduates are female. However, laissez-faire has allowed discrimination over pay and promotions, and board rooms remain almost exclusively male, despite women having the competence and desire to be there.

Positive action means identifying the barriers to women's progress in the industry, and taking steps to remove them. This should result in a larger pool of talent to meet skills shortages, leading to standards being raised. It is not about tokenism, favouritism or lowering standards, nor about quotas or 'positive discrimination' which are illegal.

Examples of positive action are: delivering training in diversity and equal opportunities to all staff, but as a priority to those responsible for recruitment and promotions; ensuring promotions are competence based; doing exit surveys to discover why female staff leave, and rectifying unacceptable practices if these are found; having a confidential complaints system which staff feel able to use; and offering flexible, part-time, or home-based working for women returners, through acknowledging the contribution and creativity of a diverse workforce. Longer term positive action includes schools liaison, presenting civil engineering as an interesting career for girls and publicising successful women as role models.

Discrimination in civil engineering is indirect, subtle and institutionalised. It is self-perpetuating and the only way to address it is by confronting it. Dodging or ignoring it will allow male domination to continue.

Of course, young women are prized recruits at junior levels - they are highly competent. Let us now see positive action to ensure that they can reach their full potential.


Patrick Godfrey, director, Halcrow Business Solutions 'Positive action' will be seen as a euphemism for 'positive discrimination'. In any case, a lot of women engineers do not want positive discrimination whatever it is called.

These are the views of two female engineers I have talked to: one said 'women come in to this profession because they want to. It is a conscious decision reinforced by a desire to succeed in a man's world'. Another said people leave the industry because of low salaries and a lack of delegated responsibility on the grounds of age. She said male engineers faced the same frustrations and that she had not encountered discrimination because she was female.

The 'Doing it differently' agenda set out in the Egan report lights the way.

This does not seek a level playing field.

It demands excellence based on understanding need and delivering far better solutions. The danger of level playing fields is that they level down to an average, rather than recognise the diversity that is required in a successful team.

The playing field has to be based on performance, not just to redress the gender balance, but because it is essential for the success of our industry.

Of course, barriers have to be removed to nurture potential in all our people. More flexible working arrangements are needed for men and women.

Construction professionals have a life outside work and often their partner is the larger wage earner.

It seems that the shortage of women in construction is already creating a demand. As a director of a major project put it, 'generally, the women on the team are less confrontational and understand better. They listen more and waffle less. They deliver what is needed, quicker.'

If we focus on delivering value and respect for people's needs we will, within five years have removed the barriers. It will take longer to restore the gender imbalance. But, without these barriers there should be many more opportunities for female engineers.

The facts

A definition of positive action is: taking specific actions to promote the progress of minorities who hitherto have met with discrimination. It is identifying existing barriers and finding ways around them to level the playing field. It is not about lowering standards but is about selecting and promoting on merit and identifying barriers to progress and taking steps to remove them.

Positive discrimination in favour of women or others in a minority in the workforce is illegal.

According to the National Construction Careers Group, the percentage of UK based female students entering civil engineering degree courses in 1999 was 13%. The percentage of male students entering architecture degrees was 69% in 1999. For building/construction degrees, 12% were women.

The ICE will be launching its Equal Opportunities Forum called ICEFLOE - ICE Fair, Level, Open and Equal on 12 June. Minister for construction, Beverley Hughes will be giving a keynote address and a photo exhibition will be launched displaying minority groups in the construction industry together with mirrors encouraging people to take a look at themselves.

The Equal Opportunities Commission website address is www. eoc. org. uk Tel (0161) 833 9244.

Change the face of construction's website address is www. changeconstruction. org Patrick Godfrey is co-author of 'Doing it differently: systems for rethinking construction.' Thomas Telford, ISBN 0-7277-2748-6.

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