Have you heard the one about the female bricklayer? No? Thought not! That’s because there are still very few woman working in construction – or many other jobs traditionally thought to need exclusively male skills.
Actually, female ‘brickies’ do exist, as BBC Radio 4’s Listening Project just a few weeks ago will attest. The programme featured an interesting conversation between two friends who met on a bricklaying course. But – that example aside – women in construction are still few and far between.
Only around one in a hundred workers on any building site are women although the proportion improves when you move from the blue to white-collar corner of the market. Here, at the Association for Project Safety, we were disturbed to find we were not doing much better – and started to wonder why.
We draw our membership primarily from architects and engineers so you might have hoped we’d have, if not a fifty-fifty split, at least something recognising the strength and contribution of female professionals. Instead we found that, for every two women members, they were lined up against twenty-three men. OK, this is marginally better than seeing any women on the pitch at a Premier League game – and that day may come - but it is not saying much for an industry struggling to fill the roles of skilled tradespeople in any building discipline.
It’s not as if the majority of jobs our members do are physically beyond women. And it can’t be because there’s a male bias at headquarters where nine out of ten of the team is female. And our next president will be a woman. But I must confess she’s a first and, although every inch the lady, has to be a very tough cookie on site to overcome a degree of residual, institutional sexism.
And I know construction, although perhaps an extreme, is not an isolated example.
My former boss is a formidable woman. She didn’t want any job as a token woman – be that in politics or the City, where she remains highly active, or in engineering, where she started her career. I know no women who professes to want a hand up the career ladder although I know some think quotas are the only answer to getting more women on to Boards or into senior management. So, what can be done to address the gender-bias and how do we break down barriers that turn girls away from some trades and professions?
There is some evidence that girls self-select out possible careers well before they make course choices at school or university. If you talk to teenagers they speak about being teased if they show any interest in maths and science or the portrayal of certain occupational groups in the media.
Young women often consider jobs that offer a decent work/life balance and perceive some career-paths as needing dedication bordering on obsession. I also believe the persisting pay-gap both underlines a sense that so-called ‘woman’s work’ is not as valuable and has an insidious effect on female self-confidence.
But, with employers’ organisations highlighting unfilled vacancies and reports that Brexit-uncertainty is already making it more difficult to attract workers from other EU countries, the country cannot afford to leave its girls behind.
And women workers are good for business. Certainly, in financial services, on which Scotland places much reliance, teams operating without gender blinkers have been effective in generating higher returns at lower risk. They are less prone to a lemming-like testosterone-fuelled dive off the cliff-edge of financial sanity. And I am sure this is true in other sectors where female professionals can bring a thoughtful approach to the workplace and a painstaking approach to the detail.
I am not saying all girls should aspire to be plumbers or electricians or bookies. There is nothing wrong with girls wanting to enter the traditional caring professions or taking up office-based employment. But I’d not have a fit if my nephew wanted to be a nurse or a secretary either.
Artificial barriers that stop the right people getting the right jobs are silly and wasteful. I had hoped that, in my working life-time, sexism would have been relegated to the dustbin of historical curiosity. I don’t have the answers but I can see we need to get to both girls and boys at an early age. And, if we want the next generation workplace to be better balanced and able to plug future workplace gaps, we need to nail it now. Lesley McLeod, Association for Project Safety