How the construction industry can improve diversity and inclusion

Having a diverse workforce is key to ensuring the sector remains relevant in a fast-developing landscape, says Catriona Aldridge

The challenge of getting to a place where the construction workforce is sufficiently diverse to be representative of its customers and stakeholders can seem overwhelming. Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) statistics indicate that the construction sector is still only 15 per cent women (2 per cent on-site), 6 per cent BAME workers, and 6 per cent disabled workers. Figures on LGBT+ representation in the industry are too unreliable to share. 

However, there are bitesize actions that organisations and employees can take to extend the conversation. Clarity on benefits and blockers can also help drive momentum. 

The business case for having a diverse workforce, inclusive of minority groups, is well made. For example, the 2020 McKinsey report, Diversity Wins: Why Inclusion Matters, found that companies with more than 30 per cent women executives were more likely to outperform companies where this percentage ranged from 10 per cent to 30 per cent. In the case of ethnic and cultural diversity, in 2019, companies in the top quartile for ethnicity diversity outperformed those in the fourth quartile by 36 per cent in profitability.

In the construction industry, the skills shortage (both the short term shortage caused by Covid-19 and Brexit, and the longer term shortage from construction workers hitting retirement in the next 15 years) puts the issue into sharp focus. Encouraging diversity seeks to make the most of untapped potential – and being inclusive helps retain the talent you have. 

Diversity of talent is also key in ensuring the industry remains relevant in a fast-developing landscape. For the sector to drive change, be innovative and effectively adopt new technologies, it needs to be able to attract people with the right skills and mindset outside the current talent pool. 

Consequently, for many, taking up the D&I mantle in the construction sector is obvious. Of course, many construction companies are making good headway. For example, through a targeted diversity programme, in 2018 43 per cent of the graduates joining global infrastructure services firm AECOM’s UK and Ireland graduate programme were female – significantly higher than the industry average of 26 per cent at the time. 

However, there are still substantial hurdles to progress in this area. When we asked an industry audience about blockers to increase diversity and inclusion in the construction sector, responses such as complacency, inertia and preconception came back. The reality that blockers come from every level is reflected in the fact that responses covered leadership as well as manual labour.

It can be difficult to know where to begin to address such deep rooted issues. The role of leadership is particularly important, both in terms of those in senior leadership positions being alive to concerns and taking accountability, and also in role modelling. 

Jomas Associates, environment and engineering specialists, which boasts a workforce of 40 per cent women, attributes this in part to an internal buddy system, which supports new graduates and is particularly welcomed by females who receive mentoring and support from more senior women in the sector. 

However, for those not at executive level three action points that can help shift the dial. 

  • Allyship: Seek to drive change from the roots up. Setting up employee networks can be hugely effective. There is a range of such networks that can be created, covering all protected characteristics and beyond – but creating one or two where there is real strength of feeling can be a powerful starting point.

    Promoting allyship is particularly important for driving inclusion and creating a culture where employees feel they can bring their whole selves to work. This approach builds in time for D&I to become ingrained and reduces the risk of it being a tick box exercise. 

  • Calling it out: For those wanting to challenge behaviours, having practical suggestions for action can be helpful. These actions can include suggesting female-sized PPE is provided, or that quiet spaces and prayer rooms, or unlocked non-male toilets on site are available. If inappropriate comments are being made, there may be instances when there is nothing for it but to call out those making them. 

  • Data: Setting targets and holding your organisation to account can be helpful. For larger organisations, statutory requirements such as gender pay gap reporting can provide a useful framework for such data collection. Going forward, pay gap reporting on ethnicity and disability will also likely be required, which again will help focus attention on what data should be collected.

    There are inherent challenges in getting employees to disclose diversity data, particularly where they do not feel part of an inclusive culture. Collaboration within the sector can help. For example, the Construction Leadership Council recently announced that it will attempt to draw up a universal standard of data collection for equality, diversity, and inclusion information. In this way companies in the sector can be compared against each other. The CIOB is another organisation seeking to take a collaborative approach on data collection. 

Overall, it is helpful to remember that it is not about taking from one and giving to another. It is about filling gaps and doing the right thing, which is to the benefit of the entire organisation.

Catriona Aldridge is an employment partner with CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang LLP