Exactly three years ago the British Armed Forces finally opened all roles to women. Since then applications for the frontline have doubled and 20% of the 80,000 applicants the Army received last year were female. Here, Steve Hammond, a former warrant officer who is now training manager for leading construction company Anderson, explains how construction needs to learn a lesson or two from the military.
My career began in the Royal Engineers and I spent 24 years in the army completing tours in Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, rising through the ranks to Warrant Officer Class 1 (Military Plant Foreman).
During that time I was chiefly in the company of other men. Although women held roles within the military, none were in close combat and indeed, that only changed in December 2018 when it was decided that our armed forces should be determined by ability alone and not gender.
Since then, the army has upped its game in demonstrating a commitment to taking action to create an inclusive culture, recognising that diversity makes them stronger.
So much so in fact, that last year it was named one of The Times’ Top 50 Employers for Women.
This is quite a feat for a historically old-fashioned and male-dominated organisation but it has set a real example to us in construction, another sector which is predominantly male.
What it reveals is that huge changes in policy and commitment can take place over a very short period of time to make an industry seem modern, attractive and rewarding – for women as well as men.
Women in construction
Only about 13% of the entire construction industry is made up of women and the majority of these are females in office-based roles rather than on-site.
And yet there is so much potential for growth in the sector which has suffered a gaping skills gap in recent years coupled with a rise in demand for housing.
Basically, there is lots of work to do but not enough people to do it.
In order to recruit – and particularly to attract women – we have to change stereotypes which may seem like an insurmountable endeavour.
But equality movements, organisations, schools and construction companies like ours have been working very hard at this and are starting to make headway.
However, this is not just about stamping out wolf-whistling men in high-vis jackets. Or combating the myth that men are bigger, stronger or better than women. This is also about changing perceptions and re-educating everyone.
Advertising has been highlighted as one of the problems for the lack of female representation in the construction industry so we need to see and hear from more role models.
We also need to engage better with schools so young women start to explore what is on offer within the industry such as positions in design, architecture, project management and technology as well as groundwork and building.
Taking an army approach
In my current role, I often draw on what the army taught me and apply it on-site. After all, the army and the construction sector are not too dissimilar.
In both, teamwork is vital, excellent timekeeping is required and you have to be versatile. Communication is also key and as a training manager, I expect discipline and commitment – just as I would have done on the field.
In both careers, you form a cog in a bigger machine – part of a wider operation – and on top of that, there is the need for a constant influx of new recruits to keep that machine running smoothly.
So here is where I plan to draw on the army again as an excellent illustration of what can be done when you put your mind to it.
They have revamped their messaging, enhanced their recruitment processes, celebrated diversity and sought buy-in in their ranks.
So in the next year, we plan to improve our recruitment drive by talking to more young women, speaking in more schools and using our current female staff as role models.
We will work together to actively combat discrimination and educate our staff and the wider public on why we need to stamp out stereotypes and change mindset.
The army has found that attracting more women broadens the range and number of potential recruits to draw from, deepening the pool of talent.
And this is precisely what the construction sector needs if it wants to future proof itself.
Sasha Harvey is a trainee site engineer at Chelmsford-based Anderson and started her apprenticeship two years ago at the age of 16.
She said her interest in construction started at the age of five when she would spend her time making sculptures our of cardboard, building Lego houses and creating papier-mache models of villages and this was actively encouraged by her family, many of which worked in the industry.
“I’d be lying if I said they weren’t some of my biggest inspirations in following my dream job,” she said. “Originally I wanted to be an architect but I started spending some time at my dad’s workplace and quickly realised I wanted to be more site-based than office-based.”
Sasha is the only woman working on The Mulberries development in Witham but said she is just considered to be “one of the team”.
“Gender should not and will not get in the way of you fulfilling your dreams,” she said. “You should be judged on your capability of fulfilling the job not on the reproductive organ you were born with.
“It is so important to encourage women into this sector and I would like to be a role model for other females looking for insight and reassurance.”
Karis Lindsell is a 17-year-old trainee estimator who landed an apprenticeship at Anderson after completing a week of work experience.
She said she was drawn to construction because of the variety of different career paths and the breadth of opportunities available.
“My apprenticeship has taught me not only construction-based skills but also people skills such as working as a team and building relationships as well as really helping my confidence,” she said. “I’ve had so much support since I started and I think we really need to educate more young females to combat the stigma attached to working in construction and belief that it’s a boys club. It’s really not.
“Anderson is a really good employer as they are eager to train and give young people opportunities. They have helped me through college and are always willing to help with any work I may be struggling with and provide me with all the resources I need to succeed.
“My ambitions for my future career path are to finish my college course and go on to university to either study estimating or surveying and carry on working full time in either of these roles.”