Why diversity is good for the construction industry

Gillian Thomson

The construction sector is not generally regarded as a bastion of equal rights for women. However, that situation is changing, says Gillian Thomson, branch manager at Cumbernauld-based cladding specialist MSP (Scotland), part of the Vivalda Group.

THE building site has never been an obvious place to see women working. Construction has traditionally involved heavy manual work and inflexible working hours – tipping its attractiveness towards men. 

However due to changes in our society, the increasing use of technology and the growing sophistication of the industry this situation is changing. 

Looking at the make-up of management teams within the building industry, from my own perspective, we’re seeing encouraging developments. We undertook a review of our operational management team earlier this year and were pleasantly surprised to see that 58% of our team were women – that’s seven out of a team of 12 managers across the UK. 

Compared to the industry’s national average of 14% of women in the workplace, our parent company Vivalda Group is clearly doing more than most to encourage diversity in the construction sector. However, it’s fair to attribute this success more down to its open, ‘can do’ culture than any formal, programme or positive discrimination. 

Looking ahead, flexible working seems to be the main stumbling block to getting more diversity into the UK building sector. And it badly needs that injection of new ideas and innovation. 

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) highlights the sorry state of our sector’s productivity. Statistics from 2018 show that the construction sector remains the least productive industry in the UK economy, at more than 20 percentage points below the average output per hour for the whole economy in 2017. 

We desperately need new ideas and more varied management styles if the industry is ever going to transform itself into a world-beating sector. This, I believe, is where a more diverse workforce can pay dividends, especially within the middle management tier. 

A study published by Forbes in 2017 highlighted the significant value of having a rich mix of opinions and viewpoints within an organisation. Its study found that all-male teams made better decisions 58% of the time compared to single managers (the ‘two heads are better than one’ argument). However, when it introduced mixed-gender teams into the process, it found they made better decisions 73% of the time – an improvement of 15%. 

Interestingly, this positive score rose to 87% of the time when management teams comprised a mix of ages, sexes and people from different cultures. These findings were backed up by a more recent study by the respected consultancy McKinsey. 

So how do construction firms ensure these more mixed teams prosper and don’t fall foul of tokenism? In my experience, it’s often down to the culture of the business, which is invariably driven from the top down. If women feel that their place of work is sensitive to their other responsibilities – often as a mother or care giver – then they are much more likely to succeed in that business. 

There will always be considerations of fairness between those with or without outside commitments, but if the overall culture is one of flexibility and support, this creates a fertile environment for diversity. Secondly, it’s about the more subtle cultural messages that reverberate through organisation – sending strong messages to those that might bring new viewpoints to a traditionally all-male board. 

Certainly at Vivalda Group, our management meetings are inclusive, cordial and even impassioned at times! However, there is never a feeling of double standards. All the women on our operational team are highly professional and have no trouble telling their colleagues their thoughts on an issue.

I think our balanced team does get its decisions right in the vast majority of cases. It’s about sharing experience and best practice on every level of the business. Moreover, I consider that we may even have a competitive advantage over many other construction businesses, thanks to our diversity. 

Next time you’re in a management meeting, take a look around the table. You might like to ask yourself: are we confirming to an old stereotype or building a better business with a rich mix of skills and experiences?