Melissa Barber is head of people and communications at Beard Construction

If, like me, you’re a woman who’s been working in construction for a decade or so, your first experience of a building site was probably less about the job you were doing and more about a feeling of imposter syndrome aggravated by ill-fitting PPE and inadequate female toilet facilities.

Granted, this experience was a product of thoughtless omissions rather than intentional attempts to exclude women. But those small doses of unconscious bias sent a sharp subliminal message: this world is man-sized. You literally don’t fit here.

But that’s all in the past. Construction may still be a male-heavy industry, but today’s building sites are a world away from such unconscious bias. Aren’t they?

Sign of the times in construction

Fast-forward to 2020. A doctor was walking past a Beard construction site in Oxford with her four-year-old daughter. She noticed a Beard-branded sign saying “Danger. Men working overhead” and she tweeted us: “Really?!? What would you say to my daughter when she asks why girls can’t be builders?”

She was right to challenge us. And we changed the sign.

“I wonder how many veterans of our sector are reading this and rolling their eyes. But the long-term survival of our industry relies on us making these changes”

Again, the bias wasn’t intentional. But it was indicative of a sector that is much better at talking about being diverse than it is at authentically being so.

The time has come for our industry to be serious about diversity and inclusion. In fact, its future depends on it.

Of course, this issue is about much more than clothing and signs. Nor does it affect only women. It might be that just 15 per cent of construction workers are female, but even fewer (6 per cent) of them come from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. And just 6 per cent of the industry’s people have disabilities.

As well as a diversity issue, construction also has an age problem. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics – based on census data between 1991 and 2001 – show that the average age of our sector’s workforce has pivoted in the wrong direction. In that 20-year period, workers aged under 34 dropped from almost half (43 per cent) of our workforce to less than a third (31 per cent). Meanwhile, the proportion of workers aged 45 and above rose from 32 per cent to 45 per cent.

Different thinking

In other words, as well as struggling to diversify our workforce, construction is attracting significantly fewer young people into the sector. Why is that? I’m sure it goes back to our industry’s culture. Construction tends to be behind the pace when it comes to modern workplace practices. And we must change in order to refresh our talent pool.

That doesn’t mean we don’t value the experience and expertise of our older, male workforce. But we need to enrich that capability with different thinking and formulate succession plans.

No one in construction would question the business benefits that come from modern methods of construction, offsite manufacture or BIM.

But investing in updating our sector’s culture is a much more difficult ask. In many ways it’s the hardest and most complex modernisation for us to achieve – not just because it means resetting some of our priorities, but also because it requires some uncomfortable conversations.

And modernising construction’s culture is not merely about diversity and inclusivity. It requires a fundamental disruption and reformation of our industry’s core thinking to create a sector with a 21st century mindset.

What construction needs to do

What does that mean in practice? It means redesigning construction’s recruitment procedures to ensure we employ a workforce that properly reflects the wider population.

It means reinventing construction’s working practices to make them more flexible and family friendly.

It means improving construction’s approach to staff wellbeing and mental health.

It means listening to construction people, gaining a better understanding of their priorities and changing our thinking to accommodate them.

I wonder how many veterans of our sector are reading this and rolling their eyes.

But the long-term survival of our industry relies on us making these changes.

First and foremost, it makes good business sense. The extensive research done by business analysts McKinsey on the subject is unequivocal. Its latest analysis, in 2019, of hundreds of firms in the UK and US found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile.

McKinsey found that the greater the representation, the higher the likelihood of outperformance.

In terms of ethnic and cultural diversity, the business-case findings were even more compelling. The top-quartile companies for diversity outperformed those in the bottom quartile by 36 per cent in profitability.

Significantly, the likelihood of outperformance was higher for diversity in ethnicity than for gender.

The Chartered Institute of Building has shown real leadership in this area with its Diversity and Inclusion Charter. It is now up to construction firms of all sizes to rise to that challenge.

At Beard, we’ve started a major culture review and social value-gap analysis, which will help us to formulate a new culture strategy.

I’m writing this just a few weeks before leaving to go on maternity leave to have my first child. How will I feel returning to the workplace after such a huge life change? How inclusive will our sector look to me when I do so?

Until we have no doubts about the answers to those questions, our sector has to make these fundamental changes – and what started as an issue with ill-fitting clothes will become the transformation that makes our sector fit for the future.