More women than ever are donning hard hats to work in property and construction. But in an industry faced with widespread skills shortages triggered by the latest spurt of housebuilding, progress has not always been rapid.
“The industry is changing and it is changing for the better,” says Avni Mehta, deputy project manager on a £500m housing project at 190 Strand in central London. Seven of the 20 people on her team at developer St Edward are women – architects, people working on the commercial side or in administration. “That’s quite a high percentage for what would be considered a male-dominated industry,” she says.
At St Edward, a joint venture between house builder Berkeley and insurer Prudential’s M&G property arm, 43% of staff are female. On site, Mehta, the secretary and a single contractor are the only three women out of 120 people, but she says: “The fact that we have one female operative is pretty significant. We had one on my last project, too, and I hope to see this increase on the project.”
Mehta, 28, who trained as a civil engineer and previously worked on the tunnelling for London’s Victoria station upgrade, adds: “There’s a reason why a lot of women don’t want to [work on site]. It’s physically demanding. A lot more women could do it but why would you stand out in the rain for 12 hours a day?”
Hourly rates for skilled construction workers have soared in the past year after 400,000 people left the industry during the recession. Figures in September showed the number of out-of-work bricklayers was the lowest in a decade.
The proportion of women working in construction, however, has crept up over the past 15 years, to 13.4% in 2014 from 11.7% in 1999, according to the Office for National Statistics. Women account for 286,000 of a construction workforce of 2.1m. In manual roles, though, that percentage falls to just 1.3%, barely changed from 1.2% in 1999.
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