Equity vs equality - tackling gender stereotypes in the built environment

Despite so often being used interchangeably, equality and equity are far from synonymous. Equality means treating everybody the same. Equity means giving everyone what they need to be successful.

That’s why when it comes to gender equity, the distinction becomes so crucially important. It’s a goal that society in general continues to strive towards, and within the built environment, it means aligning our efforts to attract, nurture, train and retain employees, in order to improve gender diversity. But what will it take to truly change our field? Charlotte Leigh, Co-Chair of the Women at Mace employee resource group, explores what more our industry could be doing in 2023.

In everyday life, gender stereotyping can often begin when children are very young, coming at us from all angles in society. My daughter had a red helicopter she initially loved, but despite not giving her anything pink at home, by the age of two her favourite colour was pink and she was faithfully nurturing her dollies. Possibly she just likes pink and dolls - but the evidence suggests she was also influenced by her nursery setting, her friends, television and by advertising. In short, the world around her was telling her what she should be.

At school age, these stereotypes often influence both study and career paths. Carpentry and plumbing tend to be pursued by those raised as boys, while healthcare and education may be chosen more often by those raised as girls. And while attitudes have certainly developed over the past 25 years, perceptions of masculinity, femininity and gender remain in constant debate.

The built environment suffers from many outdated perceptions of its own. Progress has been made but there’s still more to be done. But how can we do more to make our industry more equitable?

Proactive engagement

As it’s where stereotypes often begin, our industry must be proactive in instilling interest and understanding at early school age – whether that be through appropriately targeting our recruitment materials or even child-friendly tours of construction sites and consultancy firms. Government also has a role to play in ensuring that relevant subjects and careers advice are effectively signposted in schools. Government and industry must also continue to collaborate on pre-apprenticeship programmes, offering fundamental skills as well as early support networks. Graduates can then gain further insight through trial weeks on-site or by undertaking work placements.

Such experiences help to tackle stereotypes on multiple levels. Technology and innovation have transformed our industry - construction is not only about pouring concrete and the idea that women are not physically strong enough to work in it is no longer relevant, even if it were true. But there is also a huge diversity of rewarding roles in the industry, covering a plethora of disciplines - from architects and building surveyors to project managers and town planners. Visibility of this range within the education system must continue to be a priority. In this way we can not only build a more equal industry, we can also contribute to solving some of the biggest problems it’s facing today: the skills shortage and productivity challenge.

Inclusivity from day one

Within the built environment, embracing equity must begin during the recruitment process. The use of gender-inclusive language in job descriptions and adverts helps to ensure respect for self-identification, as does paying close attention to an individual’s preferred name and pronoun. In an industry which sometimes struggles even to supply appropriate PPE to female colleagues on site, we must acknowledge and avoid a “gender neutral” approach that inevitably returns us towards the needs of the default male.

There must also be a willingness to challenge assumptions about an individual’s ability to do the job, with this type of culture change requiring real intention on the part of senior leadership. It’s one thing to go out of your way to hire women, transgender and gender non-conforming people; but you must also do the work to ensure your workplace dynamics are welcoming, and that the environment encourages these individuals to thrive.

Establishing networks of support and highlighting promotion opportunities is vital. Attracting more women into the sector is only a partial victory if they are restricted to the lower rungs of the corporate ladder, or confined to specific disciplines. And so a culture of both standard and reverse mentorship, as well as access to resource throughout the full career lifecycle can have a real impact. Increasing the number of women who choose to remain in the industry is the only way to create broader representation at director level. With an ageing workforce and fewer older women in the industry, exploring methods of career extension are pivotal – from offering flexible working or a shorter working week, to help with succession or retirement planning.

Empowering role models

In the UK, the percentage of women within the industry has hovered between 10-15% for several years. While there are more women in senior roles than ever before (women made up just 6% of senior roles in 2005), we still see only 16% of senior roles held by women across UK construction companies. There is hope for the future, as 37% of new entrants to the UK construction industry from higher education are women. However, there’s no doubt that the entire industry has to step up efforts to consciously retain and promote female presence in leadership positions and in the field.

Progressive corporate targets which work towards a gender pay gap of ‘nil’ can provide an effective pathway and stimulate internal discussion and ideas to improve the picture.

And if a company’s fundamental objective is to empower women via diversity, inclusion and culture, incumbent male leaders must also show a visible commitment to this goal, highlighting role models, celebrating the achievements of women in the industry; and of course, maintaining a zero-tolerance approach to bullying, sexism and discrimination.

Inspiring change

The success of our industry is contingent on building inclusive and equitable companies.

Diversity, equity and inclusion for all colleagues is about more than just common sense and the right thing to do; it is good business sense. When you look at the biggest challenges we face and the role of construction in a society that needs to be cleaner, greener and more productive, we need all of our best talent on the pitch.

Equity does not mean special treatment for women, trans and gender non-conforming individuals. It’s the recognition that one size does not fit all, an acknowledgement of the need for a tailored approach and above all, an acceptance of the role our industry will play in inspiring societal change.