By Tessa Wright
This article explores the working lives of women in manual and professional construction and transport occupations, finding that lesbians and heterosexual women may have different experiences of the highly sexualised, masculine work environments they encounter. It also discusses evidence from projects that have successfully increased women’s participation, suggesting that targets can be an effective strategy.
While women have made huge progress in many occupations formerly considered the preserve of men, such as law and medicine, some sectors such as construction and transport remain stubbornly resistant to women’s entry and progression. In the UK, women still only account for 1% of those in the manual trades, 12% of professional construction jobs, and around a fifth of those in transport occupations.
Despite the challenges of increasing women’s representation in these industries, evidence from my research shows that many women are eager to work in these male-dominated sectors, and that their participation brings benefits both to the women themselves and to the sectors. Recent public commitments to increase women’s numbers from leaders of major UK infrastructure companies suggest that this is a good moment for change. With sufficient industry leadership and support, I believe women can overcome the barriers to entry and make a significant contribution to these sectors.
My recent book, Gender and Sexuality in Male-Dominated Occupations: Women Working in Construction and Transport explores the working lives of women in the UK construction and transport sectors. It finds that despite the difficulties of gaining a foothold in male-dominated work – including resistance from employers and male colleagues, harassment and bullying, and inflexible working hours – women often gain a huge sense of satisfaction and empowerment from challenging gender stereotypes to show they can do a “man’s job”. The book also highlights that although being a minority gender at work has a significant impact on their day-to-day experience, this varies considerably according to sexuality and occupational group. My interview sample included both heterosexual women and lesbians, as well as women in a variety of professional and non-professional occupations – for example, engineers, project managers, surveyors, plumbers, electricians, carpenters and bus and train drivers. The research was designed to represent the diversity of women working in these sectors, and to include those who are often overlooked by research. While many studies have examined women’s underrepresentation in professions within Science, Technology, Maths and Engineering (STEM) areas, fewer have investigated women in the building trades or in operational transport roles. Furthermore, studies of women in male-dominated work frequently comment on the highly sexualised working environment, but very few explicitly talk to women about how their sexual orientation impacts on their working lives. Therefore the study adopts an intersectional approach, which pays attention to how categories of gender, sexuality and occupational class interact in women’s experiences of work.
It’s often said that a woman who chooses a highly male-dominated occupation such as the construction trades “must be a lesbian”, and several interviewees had encountered such comments. In seeing women who enter such jobs as “exceptional”, men may be trying to maintain traditional associations of the work with masculinity, rather than believing that all women can do it. Nevertheless, for some lesbians who are open about their sexuality at work, this can offer some advantages in reducing the “sexual tension” of workplace interactions, enabling them to get on with the job. Many heterosexual women had encountered sexual harassment, in particular on construction sites, although women in professional occupations are more likely to say that this had reduced in recent years with employers sending clearer signals about unacceptable workplace behaviour.
But it is not necessarily easier for lesbians in male-dominated environments: several lesbians reported instances of harassment on the grounds of their sexuality – homophobic or anti-gay comments and abuse – indicating that minority sexuality may be a further difficulty to overcome, on top of being a woman.
Women’s reasons for entering male-dominated jobs varied, but achieving better pay was a motivation for many women in non-professional roles. In contrast to her previous job as an office clerk, one bus driver described the attraction of the job as “good earnings, you get the same wage as a man”. Women therefore saw male jobs as representing a way of escaping the low pay trap of much typically female work, especially among women in non-professional roles, such as the construction trades and bus and train driving.
The opportunity to achieve pay levels equal to men had a further impact on several women’s domestic lives. The heterosexual women with partners in the sample were much more likely to be the breadwinner (the main earner) in the family than average among women, and to have a male partner who took greater responsibility for childcare. This situation is largely a reflection of the long and inflexible working hours that characterise these industries, with slower progress on family-friendly working practices than other sectors, which means that greater flexibility is required within the home. Nevertheless, this suggests that women’s greater earnings capacity from male-dominated work provides an opportunity for shifts in the domestic division of labour – in how childcare and other domestic responsibilities are shared within the household. Thus the benefits for women from entering higher-paid male work may go beyond the economic sphere and contribute to challenging gendered traditions within the home and in expectations around caring.
But the book argues that it is not only women who benefit from greater participation in male-dominated occupations, but also the industries themselves. The construction and transport sectors have both suffered skills shortages in recent years, with construction and engineering predicted to face continued shortages in the future, with further uncertainty caused by the UK’s future exit from the EU. Often recruitment to the construction trades, for example, relies on informal, word-of-mouth methods that typically exclude women. But in my evaluation of the Women into Construction project,1 which supports women into construction jobs by providing work placements and job opportunities, some employers were delighted to have the opportunity to recruit “good, smart, hardworking” women, who they would not have come across using their normal hiring practices. The Women into Construction project, originally set up to increase women’s numbers on the construction of the London Olympic Park in 2008 and has continued since, offers a valuable model for how women’s participation can be increased in male-dominated work. It recognises that solutions must address both the supply and demand sides: on the supply side it provides training and support for women so that they are ready to enter the industry, but it also addresses the demand side by engaging with employers to offer women that crucial “foot in the door” into the industry, helping to overcome discriminatory hiring practices and stereotypes about women’s presumed lack of ability. Importantly, the project also offers ongoing support, so that when women encounter problems, such as harassment or discriminatory treatment, they can be helped to resolve these, rather than leave the industry.
Another important ingredient of the Women into Construction project’s success has been the adoption of workforce diversity targets by large construction projects such as the London Olympics. The existence of numerical targets for the employment of women, ethnic minorities, disabled workers and for local labour prompts action plans on workforce diversity throughout the supply chain, as well as monitoring by the client and main contractor. Although the targets for women on the Olympic Park were not reached, at its peak the proportion of women working in the construction trades was around three times the national average (albeit still only 3%). Targets alone, of course, cannot produce change, but must be supported by meaningful monitoring and engagement with contractors to achieve the culture change that is needed. My interviews with contractors engaging with the Women into Construction project found that some welcomed a more respectful workplace culture engendered by efforts to include women, which also improved the environment for men. Furthermore, some smaller subcontractors identified the commercial advantages of working with a project such as Women into Construction as demonstrating their commitment to gender equality when bidding for work.
Thus equality targets or demands set by public sector projects can stimulate changes not only among the main contractors but throughout the supply chain, and I suggest that these could be used more widely to speed up the pace of change in male-dominated sectors. A recent report2 has assessed the legacy of the equality and diversity strategy of the Crossrail project (a major rail infrastructure scheme through London, employing around 70,000 people over its lifetime). While highlighting the success of the strategy in improving its workforce diversity compared to industry benchmarks, the report suggests that if they had introduced workforce targets at the start of project (as in the Olympic Park), then greater progress may have been made on equality and diversity by focussing attention and providing a means to challenge and improve performance. Recent commitments by leaders of two other major infrastructure and transport employers – Thames Tideway Tunnel (a new “super-sewer” for London) and Network Rail – to improving gender representation at all levels, suggest that the time is ripe for real action to increase women’s numbers in some longstanding male domains. There is evidence of successful practice for organisations to follow, and the benefits will be reaped by women and the industries.
Featured image: Construction worker at Westlake Center, 1988 Photo Courtesy: Seattle Municipal Archives
About the Author
Dr. Tessa Wright is Reader in Human Resource Management at the Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity, Queen Mary University of London. Her research covers equality and discrimination at work, with particular interests in gender, sexuality, intersectionality, male-dominated sectors and in strategies for advancing equality, including through trade unions.
1. Wright, T. (2014). The Women into Construction Project: an assessment of a model for increasing women’s participation in construction, Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity, Queen Mary University of London. http://www.busman.qmul.ac.uk/research/researchcentres/cred/docs/134959.pdf
2. Crossrail Learning Legacy Diversity & Equality Strategy, September 2016, available from http://learninglegacy.crossrail.co.uk/