Fight to get a foot on ladder in malework site

Women in Construction
February 18, 2005

This multi-authored book is the outcome of nearly ten years' investigation into the opportunities for, and experiences of, women in the construction industry across a range of countries, most notably Western Europe but also the US, Africa and India. It has been published by the European Institute for Construction Labour Research and is intended for academics, practitioners and policymakers.

The book has a number of goals. First, it is intended "to act as a wake-up call to social partners and other institutions that play a role in regulating the gender composition of the construction workforce" and to highlight the gender imbalance. Quantitative data are limited, but for European Union countries the picture is gloomy, with women constituting only 8.6 per cent of workers in construction. Yet this sector accounts for 8 per cent of the workforce overall, so women are clearly failing to gain access to a significant area of employment that is, at least in Europe, relatively well paid.

Second, the book shows that little has been done at European, national or firm level to open the industry to women. Thus its third goal is to identify policies that might break down barriers.

But the primary aim of Women in Construction - and where the book's originality lies - is the "celebration of those women who have, who are or who will one day work in manual jobs in construction". Through the presentation of workers' testimonies, the authors give a vivid and varied impression of what it is like to be a woman working in this industry, thereby highlighting the issues that policymakers need to address.

At all levels and in all places, women are restricted from entering the profession. Some barriers are predictable: use of gendered language, assumed excessive physical workload, poor working conditions and a macho culture culminating in an exclusionary man's world. Some women speak of strong deterrents and find difficulty in fitting in - "women must always fight for their place on a construction site... to survive a woman must be clearly better than a man".

Accounts by those who have broken through are more positive: a travelling Australian electrician comments that "working with 'big scary men' every day has given me self-confidence that transfers itself to all aspects of my life". Other testimonies challenge the stereotypes, including that of a cabinetmaker and former nurse who argues that men "clearly do not realise the extent of the physical demands that characterise many of the women-dominated trades... I found it less strenuous than the work I was used to as well as a 'liberating' experience".

The women portrayed here also find it hard to be accepted. Sometimes it is possible on a one-to-one basis, but more often as an oddity than as an equal and ordinary member of the team. Even the more progressive men are reported to share in collective anti-female banter.

Within the EU, policies to address the under-representation of women are largely absent and even though there is a highly developed dialogue between the social partners in this sector, there are no women's equal opportunities committees or working groups. This is puzzling given the general policy commitments to promote gender equality in the EU.

The editors conclude that it is not women who exclude themselves from construction but rather the lack of political will inside and outside the industry that creates obstacles in addition to the more general gender stereotyping that underpins existing gender identities. More optimistically, they suggest that once more women are involved in the industry, the environment will become more female-friendly. Quite how this is to be realised remains less clear.

Diane Perrons is director of the Gender Institute, London School of Economics.

Women in Construction

Editor - Linda Clarke, Elsebet Frydendal Pedersen, Elisabeth Michielsens, Barbara Susman and Christine Wall
Publisher - Construction Labour Research/Reed Business Information, www.wmin.ac.uk/etlm/WICbook
Pages - 224
Price - £17.00
ISBN - 90 5901 303 4

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