Gender stereotypes in the construction industry: breaking barriers to tackle skills shortages

Blog posts

15 May 2024

Arundhati Dave, Research Officer
Kate Alexander, Research Fellow

Arundhati DaveKate Alexander

Despite employing over 1.4 million people in Great Britain with a further 2.2 million in self-employment (ONS, 2022) and historically being a pillar of the economy, the construction industry, like many others, is facing skills shortages that are holding back growth. IES’s recent research for the Construction Industry Services Board (CITB) explores attitudes towards awareness of construction careers among potential entrants and those within the industry. Our work was based on the premise that as the sector aims to attract more people to its workforce, employers must go beyond the usual suspects to recruit from wider, more diverse groups. The proportion of women working in the construction industry has been low with the overall proportion of women working in the sector being 14 per cent in 2021. We ask – what do these individuals think about the construction sector?

Our research reached over 3,500 individuals, capturing views from both inside and outside the sector and highlighted some troubling perceptions of the industry. Findings from outside the sector showed pervasive stereotypes around the industry and concerns about various forms of discrimination, especially amongst women. However, perceptions from within the sector paint a different picture, with those surveyed reporting discriminatory attitudes as being uncommon. With the sector facing pre-existing skills shortages and pressures on the existing workforce due to skill requirements needed to meet net zero targets, negative perceptions that may be dissuading some groups from working in the sector and possibly causing difficulties in recruitment need to urgently be tackled.

Attitudes amongst potential entrants

We found that the beliefs and gendered stereotypes around construction being a male domain have remained entrenched. Previous IES research that surveyed potential entrants (those working in other sectors or seeking employment) and construction workers found existing perceptions around work in the sector requiring physical fitness and being outdoors. Women were also more likely to describe the construction industry as manual, demanding and masculine and were slightly less likely to say flexible working was possible.  In our research, men rated their knowledge and attraction to careers in construction highly, more so than women. Men were also more likely to have considered a career in the sector. These findings also extended to parents of young people.

Concerns around experiencing sexism were also common, more so amongst female respondents. Concerns around physically demanding work, unsociable hours and misogyny could be making it challenging for women to begin work in the sector. To a lesser extent, although still notable, potential entrants to the sector were also concerned about racism, anti-LGBTQIA+ behaviour, ableism, and classism; indicating some concerns around the culture and behaviours within the industry.

Findings from within the sector

Our findings from within the sector paint a different picture, with discriminatory attitudes and behaviours less frequently reported. Previous IES research also found that the construction industry was seen to have a diverse workforce by the majority of respondents. The majority of construction workers in our sample had not experienced any prejudiced or discriminatory attitudes. They felt that the culture in construction was better than they had initially expected.

However, some isolated instances of discrimination were reported. These were said to be more common on-site than in other construction sector working environments and new entrants in the industry were more likely to report such an instance. Some workers within the sector, reported awareness of racist or sexist comments being made in the workplace but were also quick to say that these were not made with malicious intent. A few interviewees also described difficulties in escalating issues of sexism and racism in the workplace when they arose.

Our conclusion? Despite more than half of our respondents indicating that they felt the construction industry was a positive and safe place, recruitment difficulties for employers persist. Our research suggests that negative perceptions and concerns about the working culture may deter women and other underrepresented groups from working in the sector.  

We also found that these career-related stereotypes take hold early. By the time young people start their GCSEs they have already made important decisions about their future careers, and young women are more likely than young men to find a career in construction unattractive. The upcoming phase two of our Careers in Construction will be focusing on how early interventions can tackle these stereotypes.

If employers are to plug the skills gap, they must widen their talent pool. A dual approach is required. One that campaigns to both:

  • Improve perceptions about the industry, especially in highlighting the wide range of roles and pathways in construction beyond physically demanding on-site work. As one participant from previous research put it, they need “more information about the roles available other than 'builder'. What it's like for women, LGBTQ+ people, those with disabilities.”
  • While backing that up with the work to improve work conditions and continuing good practice – highlighting flexible work practice, work-life balance and fine-tuning grievance procedures.

Extensive work is already being undertaken towards progress on the gender agenda in the construction industry and highlighting women in the sector, however more can be done to improve gendered perceptions of the industry and workplace conditions for women.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.