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New research shows how the UK construction sector can tackle discrimination against women

Experts are calling for a broader conversation on gender equality within the UK construction industry, after new research found women in the sector are still experiencing gender bias, sexism, and discrimination.

Despite improvements and efforts towards equality, diversity and inclusion in UK construction project organisations, gender bias and sexist discrimination are still experienced by many. This is impacting women’s health and well-being, retention rates, and career growth.

The findings have been published in a new report by the Association for Project Management (APM), Developing Effective Interventions for Gender Equality in UK Construction Project Organisations.

The research was carried out by Sara Hajikazemi, Associate Professor in Project Management at University of the West of Scotland, Giorgio Locatelli (Professor of Complex Projects Business at Politecnico di Milano School of Management) and Kate Lawrence (Research Fellow at University of Leeds).

Dr Hajikazemi said: “While significant progress has been made in addressing gender bias and sexism, there remains much work to be done. The construction sector, as one of most male dominated sectors, struggles with this phenomenon. The UK construction sector is currently dealing with massive skill shortages. One effective strategy to overcome this challenge is to actively encourage women to pursue careers in construction and try to retain the talent that is currently available. This however requires breaking barriers and overcoming common stereotypes that construction is not for women.

“Our research aims to raise awareness about the significance of gender diversity within the sector. It outlines a roadmap for achieving this diversity and emphasises the benefits that gender equality will bring – not only to women but also to men, organisations, and society as a whole.”

'Open and honest dialogue'

The research used systematic reviews of existing literature, interviews with women at various stages of their careers, and a delphi study to assess the effectiveness of different types of gender-equality interventions (GEIs) used within the UK construction industry.

It found that, while positive progress has been made in recent years, the effectiveness of GEIs is mixed, and also that all of the women participants had experienced some form of discrimination (more than half had observed discrimination against other women). This was found to be having impacts on individuals and for the construction industry as a whole.

Co-author, Prof. Locatelli, has called for organisations to engage in open and honest dialogue with their workforces in order to address issues identified in the research.

He said: “I want this research to start a discussion. One of the most important findings is that women want to be heard. If you want to solve an issue – any issue – you must first acknowledge that it exists.

“’Women’ are not a single group. People are all different. There are people with and without children. There are people of different ages. There are women in senior positions who are transitioning through menopause.

“Some women, women of colour for example, face additional issues. There is a big discussion around positive discrimination, which is extremely controversial even among women. But that’s a discussion that needs to be had.”

Prof. Locatelli suggested three main outcomes he would like to see across the entire construction sector as a result of the research:

  • Help people learn and understand – have open conversations with employees, including project professionals. Organise training for male workers on issues such as menopause to raise awareness.
  • Let women choose their mentors – structured mentorship processes are beneficial and favoured by many women. However, there is a risk of organisers assuming that a woman may be a suitable mentor purely because of her gender. Women should have input into the selection process.
  • Apply a zero-tolerance approach to unprofessional behaviour – set up interventions and processes for addressing instances of unwanted physical contact, biased comments, and other inappropriate and unprofessional behaviours.

Developing Effective Interventions for Gender Equality in UK Construction Project Organisations can be downloaded here.

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