For most of my academic career, recruiting more female entrants to courses in traditionally ‘male-dominated’ subject areas has been an accepted goal for course managers.  In my subject of construction management,  most courses now recruit more women than they once did (which is not difficult!)  but we are a long way short of a balanced intake.  The case for female recruitment  is rarely analysed, but there is an assumption that it is part of a general commitment to equal opportunities.  I would not for a moment disparage that justification: I believe passionately that human beings should enjoy equal opportunities, irrespective of gender, race or any other human characteristic – and it is impossible to deny that such equality has often been lacking.  But today I want to examine a different argument for having more women in the construction workforce.

This springs out of a recent report in the UK  (by Lord Davies of Abersoch) which argues that, in the interests of good governance, there should be more women on the boards of major companies.  The Davies recommendation was anticipated by Martin Vander Weyer in an article in a recent issue of The Spectator (26.02.11), expressing, more strongly than I have seen it expressed before, the real dangers of an excessively masculine approach to decision making.  He attributes much of the banking crisis to excessive machismo on the part of bank directors, and concludes that ‘major companies, and the  pension funds that invest in them, would be a lot safer in the hands of gender-balanced boards’.

Some feminists would, I know, argue against the attribution of particular qualities to men and women, and I fully accept that there is huge (and overlapping) diversity of personality characteristics within each of the genders.   I’m convinced, however, that organisations perform better with a gender-balanced workforce and (to return to the part of the organisational world I know best) that management in construction sometimes suffers from the excessive machismo to which Vander Meyer refers.  Nor do I believe that the need for balance exists only at the level of corporate governance: indeed it’s at the operational level that macho-management can be most prevalent and dangerous – whether it is practised by men or by women.

Higher education courses frequently simulate industrial practice, and I hope it may be possible for teachers to examine the extent to which gender balance influences decision making and performance within work groups.  It would be good to hear from anyone who has done work of that kind on construction courses.

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  1. Anonamous says:

    Dear John,

    A very enjoyable article with a good arguement and content.

    My concern is we are becoming a box-ticking society, whereby we are making important decisions that are based upon achieving what is socially acceptable, opposed to what is directly important to us.

    As a managing director of a construction consultancy and more importantly people, I can see the massive benefits of having a “balanced” workforce, but in terms of a Team, opposed to having the same number of men and women. Now if the right balance of the Team means employing 100% women, or 100% men, or a mix of any percentile balance, then so be it.

    The focus of the Construction Industry should not be on trying to employ more women, people with disabilities, or from a ethnic minority, and making it a more attractive proposition to all people by raising its profile and promoting itself as a forward-thinking and future focused industry. It will then attract the best people regardless of their gender, race or other human characteristics.

    This brings me on to the point in hand. My opinion on this matter only relates to the Construction Industry, of which I have first hand knowledge. The issue of having a balance board of men and women, or even a balance at operational level, as you suggest, is it doesn’t compensate for lack of leadership, poor organisational culture, structure, teamwork, and general competency of its senior management. Whether you have men or women, if the organisation lacks leadership its going nowhere fast and will meandour at mediocre pace, more often than not disguising its inefficiencies.

    Therefore, I guess what I am saying, looking at the banking crisis from the outside in, is that whilst there might be a case for “machiosm”, of which similar characteristics can be seen in all people, I believe poor leadership, structure, governance, teamwork, competency, played a much large part.

    Thank you for such an interesting article and apologies that I am not your target respondee.

  2. Gill Trodden says:

    I am a woman trustee of the CIOB and have been taking a somewhat different approach to the diversity and equality debate. As John says, the construction industry, its professional bodies, and education courses that feed it, display a serious imbalance in terms of the cross-section of society that they represent. However, this imbalance is not only about gender. It includes the entire range of ‘categories’ generally listed within the umbrella of ‘diversity and equality’. Having said that, I do believe that the representation of women in our industry is a good indicator of the overall imbalance pro rata the entire society. Where I strongly disagree, is that any form of positive discrimination towards women and the formation of ‘women’s groups’ will improve the situation. Indeed, as John alludes, that approach hasn’t worked over the last 30 years that I am aware of. In my opinion, it is divisive. I have been working with the London Branch of the CIOB and, in particular, London Novus (the forum for recent and aspiring CIOB members) on what we term ‘inclusivity’. The theory is that the construction industry moves towards a meritocracy in which we attract, employ and support the most talented people for roles in our very creative and influential disciplines. Current research shows that ‘healthy’ (in the sense of thriving and successful) businesses are those who employ the best people from the complete representation of the society that they serve. We have to work on the leaders of our industry to make them aware of this and to put strategies in place to ensure that recruitment and support of staff works to this end. This is not only about what is morally right, but what makes good business sense. We can make the construction industry organisations into employers of choice. Clients can help to influence this just as they are doing in terms of sustainability. All we need is the commitment to make it happen!

  3. Hi John,
    It’s always a delight to see someone talk so passionately about this area. Four years ago after a 10 year career in construction (production side) I set up my business to tackle some of the barriers women face and have found this to be an interesting but complex area.
    Firstly you are right there is a growing amount of research showing the benefits of women in the work force from operational to strategic level and have tried to put as much of it on my research page as possible. ( http://www.constructingequality.co.uk/faq-s/research )
    Secondly I feel we need to look at all the stages of a career to ensure the recruitment, development and retention of women in industry. Currently we have a low retention rate and the women that leave state lack of opportunity and workplace culture as the main reasons when making decisions to find alternative careers – we have to remember that these women will take their experiences with them possibly discouraging others from considering the industry.
    Colleges and University’s must also do their bit – A recent Audit we were commissioned to carry out on a FE College found barriers to women at recruitment, teaching and progression levels. Encouragingly these barriers could be easily removed.
    It’s important to state though that diversity only works if it is well managed, if is not it can be more harmful whether in the classroom, workplace and board room.
    I hope some of that is helpful

  4. Kelly says:

    This was a great article. So glad someone shares their views on this subject.

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