Behind the Build: Interview with Dr Karen Blay, Lecturer in Digital Construction and Quantity Surveying at Loughborough University

dr Karen Blay

The construction industry is making important strides in addressing the gender imbalances that exist. Inclusive working policies and promoting gender diversity across organisations are embedded in many firm’s working practices but women still only make up approximately 20% of the overall construction workforce. 

Although huge progress has been made to raise the profile of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, Dr Karen Blay, Lecturer in Digital Construction and Quantity Surveying at Loughborough University, believes the focus still remains on the discipline of engineering and doesn’t embrace the wider opportunities which the construction sector can offer women. In this Behind the Build blog, Karen discusses the ‘leaky pipe’ concept and the blockers preventing women from joining the construction industry.  

Can you tell us more about the ‘leaky pipe’ concept that you believe exists in the construction industry today? 

If we think of the ‘leaky pipe’ concept in the most basic terms – it’s essentially discovering you’ve had a substantial pipeline leak in your critical water supply for some time. Although your supply is precious to your community activities and outputs, it is a limited commodity, and you pay a premium cost to have it, you discover that your water is disappearing to other communities who are benefitting from your investment. This is what’s happening in our industry – although we struggle to attract women, when we do, we often lose them later down the line to other sectors and industries. Often firms don’t realise so explicitly that this is directly happening to them, but from an industry perspective we can see a trend and we must do something to change this. 

What are some of the challenges facing women working in the industry? 

I think there’s some common misconceptions about the industry that we aren’t doing enough to banish or breakdown. In a lot of our advertising and marketing to job seekers, there’s a heavy focus on construction involving manual labour and we’re sometimes using gender-biased language in job adverts without realising it. As well as this, the absence of strong campaigns and positive outreach to appeal to schoolgirls at secondary education levels means females don’t necessarily think about pursuing a career in construction. 

Over the years, we’ve made progress in attracting women to construction.  According to a Randstad report on the state of the sector, in 2005 an overwhelming 79% of women working in the industry said that their employer had no special focus on recruiting more women – but as of 2015 this had improved to stand at just 29%. This means less than one third of employers lack an active stance towards recruiting more women which is great. Nonetheless, when women are working in the industry high workloads and long hours through presenteeism often means many women don’t feel that they can progress or struggle to maintain their work and home life balance leading them to seek opportunities elsewhere.  

How do you think the move towards more digital ways of working in the industry can support attract and retain female talent? 

The traditionally male dominated construction industry is showing signs of modernising through the take up of digital transformation. This can help with both attracting and retaining women in careers in the industry. Digitalisation facilitates flexible and remote working – something that has become ever more important as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic facing the world over. 

Working in a more remote and digitalised setting helps to remove any invisible biases that may exist, as employers are focusing on outcomes delivered. Employers cannot see their employees in the workplace but must trust they will get the job done – whether that takes two or ten hours. This shift in mindset also can help to realign the focus and perception of productivity in the industry too, helping to reduce presenteeism and unconscious biases. 

For women in the industry, working remotely can also help to create a more equal and level playing field.

In online meetings everyone is in the same position and in virtual teams’ women may feel more supported and included, while also getting the opportunity to raise their profile and network that may have not existed previously without the need to travel extensively. 

For me, the key to retaining women in the sector and overcoming the leaky pipe lies in company culture.  More open and inclusive working practices are probably the most important element to this, but they can be supported by using digital technology tools to analyse interaction with an organisation and asses how engaged their female employees are. 

Amanda Fennell

Amanda Fennell is Director of EMEA Marketing in Autodesk Construction Solutions and Autodesk Ireland Site Lead. She has over 20 year’s marketing experience in IT, including working with some leading cloud organisations. Amanda holds an MA in Communications and Cultural Studies from DCU and is based in Autodesk’s European headquarters in Dublin.