The women deconstructing an industry’s macho reputation

Women in Construction: Rebecca Whyte
Women in Construction: Rebecca Whyte
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Just one per cent of workers on construction sites are women. Jayne Dawson investigates why it is one of the last bastions of male domination.

In some ways, it is no surprise to learn that only the tiniest percentage of workers in the construction industry are women.

It is, after all, the ultimate hard hat, macho industry. Think of construction work and bricklaying, builders’ bums and beefy blokes come to mind. As for women and building sites – well, that just means wolf whistling and sexual innuendo, doesn’t it?

Well, no. Any woman who does work in the industry will tell you that image is out of date and miles off the mark.

Despite a Smith Institute report recently revealing that just 1.2 per cent of the workers in the industry’s traditional trades are women, those who are within it say there is a culture of training, health and safety, professionalism and respect for colleagues of whatever gender.

And, most of all, they say the construction industry offers women much more than manual labour.

Vicky Patterson, 41, of Wakefield, is a lecturer in civil engineering at Leeds College of Building. She said: “People think of construction work as being plumbers, joiners and brickies but there is much more to it and there are a lot of managerial roles.”

Vicky , a mother of two children, aged 10 and eight, worked for the Environment Agency on a flood risk management scheme before becoming a lecturer.

She said: “ The industry is much more flexible now and with a more diverse workforce. So it is possible, for instance , to be a working mother. It is never easy to combine those roles but it is no more difficult in the construction industry than in any other now.”

Vicky thinks the main problem lies within schools, which do not encourage girls enough to make choices that would allow them to go on to a career in the construction industry and don’t promote the value of an apprenticeship over a degree.

She said: “It means that a young person can earn and study at the same time. Many of them go on to convert their qualifications into a degree, so instead of racking up debt they are being paid to gain qualifications.

“And it is good for employers too – they are getting someone who is tailor-made for their industry and has an all-round training.”

Rebecca Whyte , 28, is a student at Leeds College of Building and is aiming to be either a quantity surveyor or a project manager – yet when she was a teenager her parents thought she would go into beauty and hairdressing.

In fact Rebecca, who is one of six, left Allerton Grange School in Leeds at 16 without a maths or science GCSE and ended up working in a banking call centre – but she did not let that stop her.

She said: “I had tried a business administration course but realised that was not for me. I had a friend who was a quantity surveyor and I decided that I would like to do something in the construction industry. So one day I just rang the college and it started from there.”

Rebecca has now been combining work and study for five years and spends time on construction sites as part of her training. “I have never had a problem on site, in fact the men tend to be very gentlemanly. There is a bit of banter and it isn’t the job for you if you are going to be upset by that but there has never been anything sexist about it.

“It is a job where you need to at least appear confident but you can always feign that, even if you don’t feel it. I am a girl again in my own time, but not when I am working.”

To train for her intended career, Rebecca had to go back to the beginning and took BTec Levels 2 and 3 before studying for her HND (Higher National Diploma) and will top it up into a degree by completing one year at university. She funds her training by continuing to work at the call centre.

Kayley Lockhead, 25, is already employed in the construction industry and likes nothing better than talking about a building’s heating systems, domestic drainage services, even its boiler plans. As a child she liked doing DIY with her dad, and at the age of 18 she decided that she wanted a practical career, so after taking three A-levels she applied for a job as an electrician.

She so impressed her interviewers that they offered her an engineering apprenticeship instead – and now Kayley is a mechanical design engineer, employed by construction company NG Bailey. Since then Kayley has won several awards including Apprentice of the Year, and also a travel bursary awarded to young engineers when she visited East Africa to do research on renewable energy to help the people there.

When Kayley began her apprenticeship she was the only girl in a group of ten. She said: “It was very scary but not because I was the only girl, but because it was something new.”

During her apprenticeship Kayley was paid from £10,000 to £20,000. and if her career progresses to technical manager level she can expect to earn £50,000-plus.

She said: “There are loads of opportunities. When you start an apprenticeship you don’t need to know right at the beginning what job it is you are aiming for, you can swap and move around.

“I think schools need to give girls more information about this type of work, it’s a great job.”