Gender Diversity Within the Construction Sector

-Authored by Anjali Samuel, Managing Partner – Mindfield Resources

In the last 10+ years, there has been a significant social change and societal development in the Middle East. The changing mindset and growing acceptance of women’s rights have undoubtedly raised the percentage of women in the workforce in general. However, I feel that diversity and inclusion need to be driven into the DNA of each organization for it to have a significant impact. Otherwise, it remains a token gesture that checks off a box in the KPIs with no measurable change on the ground.

Diversity and inclusion have been key buzzwords doing the rounds of the corporate world for many years now. We have partnered with clients in the consumer goods, retail, automotive, financial services space who have kept this agenda front and centre of their vision.

But speaking of the construction industry, it has historically been a male bastion globally and even more so in the Middle East markets, owing to the nature of the work profile. You will see a smattering of women working in the construction industry in Saudi Arabia. Even then, their job is primarily in support functions and majorly limited to the mid-management level. Women have been observed to be more inclined to architecture and interior designing. They prefer to pursue careers in consulting organizations, start their own boutique firms or venture into other professions that have not been labelled as male-centric work.

The driving reason is that women did not prefer the construction sector as a career, and companies are not ready for this change. For countless years, the patriarchal society of the Middle East has conditioned us to believe in certain gender norms. This has led to people placing gender higher than merit and skill when hiring a suitable candidate. As a result, women are also conditioned to believe that certain jobs are not meant for them, which leads to a decline in their professional interests in the construction industry.

However, the scenario in other GCC markets is different as there are more expat women workforce available. In recent years, there has been a sustained drive to engage female talent at key strategic levels in the organization. There is serious intentionality to drive this change at crucial levels and cascade it across the organizations. Organizations in the construction industry are aware of the complex challenges that lie ahead of them. Any initiative that is being taken to drive whether the diversity of gender requires planning and laser focus to achieve the ultimate objective of inclusion and the outcome of belonging. After all, belonging is the key wherein you will see a measurable impact on employee engagement, productivity and creativity. It is impressive to see how critical leadership teams are driving this agenda.

However, not much has changed despite there being a significant leadership intent. I feel the builders need to understand that women are equally capable of contributing to the construction industry. We often notice that the argument presented to justify the gender imbalance in the construction industry is associated with masculine physical strength. Gender bias statements and male superiority are comfortably chosen to rationalize the status quo. However, in most emerging markets, you see hundreds and thousands of women equally partaking in the manual labour associated with construction. Along with that, technological advancements have also simplified construction work. Hence, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be included in higher-level management or supervisory roles.

I feel that at the outset, diversity plays out from a perspective of equality. This inherently limits the comparator to men – in the men dominated bastions. I suggest we pitch it as an advantage for the diverse groups, i.e. Women. Women have priceless expertise in building homes, cultures, and the human race; they can use the same experience to take companies to greater heights.

I also remember reading a survey conducted among the construction firms in the UK. The study showed that one in five construction companies have no women in senior roles, even in a developed country like the UK. Half of the construction firms also revealed that they have never had a female manager in their organization. Furthermore, 48% of the women working in the industry claimed to have face gender discrimination with a pay gap of over 25%. These numbers are somewhat shocking given there has been no improvement in the scenario, even in an era where gender equality is a pressing issue.

Thoughts, opinions and speeches are not going to help the situation. What we need are action-oriented initiatives. It’s time you ask the women and understand what will drive women to this industry. It’s time you went beyond plastering social media with pictures of creche or maternity policy. Motherhood isn’t the only thing keeping them away from the construction industry. Problems faced by women need to be heard from women, and that’s why a female perspective on this entire scenario is essential. Talk to the women in your organizations, listen to them, ask for potential actions to improve interest from these under-represented groups and only then can we witness any real growth.

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