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News & opinion

7 JUL 2022

Improving representation of women in property and construction

James Grinnell, Group People Director at Currie & Brown, shares his experience of proactively improving female representation in property and construction

The industry faces the ongoing challenge of addressing the undeniable discrepancy between male and female representation in employees across the fields of property and construction.

RICS data shows that qualified female professionals make up only 18% of the built and natural environment workforce, up from a mere 5% in 1990. At the more senior level, of the total of RICS members who have achieved fellowship status, only 4% are women.

More specific to the construction industry, the latest data shows that women make up just under 11% of the total global workforce. Only 13% of construction companies are owned by women, and 14% of staff executive positions are held by women. The balance is gradually improving, but progress remains slow, an issue that spans the sector as a whole.

There are also notable geographical trends, driven by levels of entrants into the profession, and driven by cultural views of construction.

Backdrop to the imbalance

There are a number of reasons for the challenges to meaningful progress in this area, in both encouraging women to enter, as well as staying in the industry.

Gender stereotypes and biases – whether unconscious or real - can contribute to underrepresentation and gender inequality.

Outdated, male-dominated stereotypes persist, potentially influencing women’s appetite to pursue a career in the industry. However, issues go deeper than this.

A conspicuous lack of women in senior positions means poor representation in aspirational positions or as mentors, coaches and as a network. In turn, this reduces reassurance to prospective female applicants that a long-term and progressive career is a viable option for them. Similarly, typically careers guidance and promotion of relevant skills throughout the education process impacts on the perception of opportunities for women.

Publicly available gender pay statements point to a significant gap at the majority of firms in the industry. In a male-dominated industry, the policies and procedures of many businesses seem to be failing to adapt to be more inclusive and actively recognising and promoting the benefits of a female workforce.

An area of particular priority is the experience of women being treated inappropriately and unfairly in the workplace. A poll by Randstad of 4,200 construction workers in the UK, found that two in every five (41%) women in construction said they had been on the receiving end of inappropriate comments or behaviour from a male colleague. Worryingly, this was significantly higher than when similar research was carried out two years earlier when 28% of women reported experiencing gender discrimination in the workplace in the form of inappropriate comments or behaviour from male colleagues.

When considered together, it’s understandable that these factors conspire to deter women who may otherwise be interested in a career in property and construction.

Recognised routes to actively address the issues outlined include:

  • Training and awareness-raising on unconscious bias
  • Setting targets/quotas for leadership-level gender balance
  • Providing targeting mentoring and coaching
  • Reviewing approaches to attracting and rewarding talent
  • Enabling and embracing flexible working
  • Creating and promoting an inclusive culture
  • Ensuring equal access to development opportunities


Currie & Brown: a proactive programme to promote women in the workplace

Currie & Brown has been addressing the issue of female under-representation for a number of years, realising the compelling business case and the corporate responsibility in doing so. Today, 27% of our qualified professionals are women, in comparison to the industry average of 17%.

But we recognise we still have further to progress.

Our goal is to ensure improved parity in our gender representation, and a working environment conducive to ensuring all our people reach their full potential. Broadly, our strategy in this area can be split into two elements: our approach to attracting higher numbers of women, and how we ensure the work environment is as inclusive as possible.

We have made some significant policy decisions designed to attract women into our business. One of the most significant has been a commitment to recruiting non-cognate graduates. Data shows that university applications within construction and property are still heavily weighted to a male population. Currie & Brown realised the impact this would have on our gender balance and now focus our recruitment efforts on non-cognate graduates, enabling us to select from a far broader and more diverse pool of talent. As a longer-term strategy it is providing real impact, supporting a year-on-year increase in female representation in our business.

Within the United Kingdom, this change has meant that over 40% of our recently qualified technical staff are now women, showing a significant improvement against industry norms.

In our Americas and APAC businesses, over half of our technical staff at junior levels are now women and we expect this to mean the workforce in these locations has a 50/50 split within the coming years.

It is not just at a junior level we are focusing our efforts. We felt a need to open ourselves to audit and review and partnered with an external consultant for feedback on how to improve inclusivity and gender representation.

One piece of work undertaken as part of this review was guidance on how to update the language we use in our job advertisements, to make it more inclusive to a female population. In advertising roles, we aim for gender-neutral job descriptions.

We have also taken steps to make the business a more appealing environment for female employees. One major step forward was the launch of a global flexible working policy, enabling people across our global business to request working practices to suit individual situations, for example flexi-hours, working from home, or part-time working. Feedback is that this is a highly effective tool in helping us to attract capable women into our business, and importantly helping to ensure they remain engaged, motivated and committed. 

We also recognise our broader role beyond helping women into our organisation, with a corporate responsibility to promote representation into the industry as a whole. We made a decision to offer paid time off to conduct work of community benefit, and we have actively encouraged a number of our female staff to hold talks in colleges and universities, to promote our industry.

For us these activities are vitally important in helping to dispel some of the myths related to being a woman in property and construction.

To make the work environment as inclusive as possible, we have also taken a number of process and policy steps. EDI now sits as a core agenda item for our Operational Executive senior management team. This has led to the formation of a global working group, with representatives across the organisation, providing input and views on how we improve underrepresentation and continue to evolve our inclusive culture.

We realise there is no ‘one size fits all’ in a business that spans many countries and cultures, and therefore the focus has been on creating a framework that has a minimum global approach, with guidance and recommendations at a country-by-country level to improve representation.

Other core actions and policy decisions have included:

  • mandated female representation at graduate interview panels, recognising the impact such decisions have on the perception of women considering a role in our business.
  • the creation of a mental health framework, with external independent mental health support for all worldwide employees.
  • the creation of new business behaviour guidelines, citing the importance of inclusive behaviour across our business.
  • stated ambitions to our staff regarding our aspiration to improve all areas of underrepresentation across our business, supplemented by the review and update of our EDI policy.
  • EDI has also been factored into a suite of other policies, from our bullying & harassment policy, our grievance policy, our personal leave policy, and many others.

A key action that has underpinned all of these changes has been how we have communicated with our employees. We partnered with an industry leading external consultancy to design some bespoke ‘inclusivity training’ that was relevant to our business, with real examples of the behaviours we expect to see. This focused on helping staff to understand how small actions can embrace inclusivity and make a real positive impact. The training was mandatory for all staff and was supplemented by various workshops conducted by leaders across our global business.

We ensure all groups have an equal voice. Our ‘Staff Voice’ feedback programme allows any individual to put forward anonymous views, suggestions, opinions or ideas. These are transparently shared with the whole business, along with written response from management. This is a really important way to ensure we capture the thoughts of under-represented groups, and genuinely listen and respond to them.

Our mentor scheme similarly creates an environment that helps individuals to express themselves. For our female population in particular, this is highly valued, ensuring day-to-day access to senior women, for discussion, advice and idea sharing. Our research shows that people who have a mentor are twice as likely to stay in our business, making this a significant part of our strategy to retain and engage with all our people.

One piece of feedback we received was that many women can be inadvertently overlooked for promotion, as they hit the ‘glass ceiling’. We have tackled this by establishing a process that enables any employee to request a performance review at any stage during the year, turning on its head the notion this must be a management-led exercise. This allows everyone a self-driven forum to discuss performance, ambitions, career development and progression. This alone does not solve the problem, however. We recognise that women may be more reluctant than men to drive performance discussions and therefore our HR functions across the world have an ongoing process to monitor the equity of promotional and pay review decisions.

The journey is ongoing for our business. Most crucially, we continue to listen to our people and recognise their experiences, using these as a basis for our ongoing evolution towards our vision of being an employer of choice for women in construction.