Making UK construction accessible for women of colour

With very few women of colour working in the industry – especially in leadership positions – what steps can UK construction take to improve inclusivity?


  • Neelam Raja

11 August 2021

Black woman sits at desk analysing data on computer, tablet and phone

While there has been an increasing amount of research on employees of colour and female employees in the UK construction industry, very little information is available on the intersection of women of colour in the industry. It is well known, however, that there are few women of colour in professional roles.

In order to improve the accessibility of construction careers, it is important for organisations and professionals to understand what steps they can take to help women of colour join, progress and excel in an industry that already has a skills shortage.

Potential measures

As part of the research for my master’s dissertation, I identified a range of measures proposed in previous literature for attracting and retaining talent from minority groups, including women and people of colour. I then put these to 47 women of colour who each had a minimum of two years' experience working in the UK construction industry.

I asked them to score the measures according to how effective they felt they would be on a scale from 2, 'strongly agree', to –2, 'strongly disagree'. All of the proposed measures scored positively, as Figure 1 shows.

Taking action

It is the duty of those in leadership positions to act as allies to women of colour, to investigate and enable their access to the industry. Only then can construction become a more inclusive career choice.

One place business leaders can start is with the four measures ranked highest by the respondents.

Dealing with incident reports more effectively

Feeling confident about reporting race- and gender-related incidents such as abuse or harassment was seen as the most significant way to reduce barriers to progression. Procedures where incidents can be reported and dealt with safely and effectively for all parties involved need to be in place.

If someone is reported for racist behaviour to HR, for instance, incidents should be followed up with an investigation and discussion. Responsible parties should then be held accountable, both to discipline the individual and to show other employees the potential repercussions of racist behaviour.

More careers workshops and related initiatives

Women of colour need to be made aware of the opportunities available to them in construction through initiatives such as school or college workshops. Some studies and reports have also suggested that more work-based training programmes, tailored courses in schools and apprenticeships should be provided to students of colour and young girls to increase entry and progression.

Specialised recruitment events, networking events and schemes and training for leadership positions could also help reduce barriers to entry and improve retention and progression. One participant in my research said workshops are essential to breaking barriers for female students of colour, as these offer an insight into what it's actually like to work in construction, challenging any misconceptions.

Anti-racism and unconscious bias training

Many industries, such as the media – the company ITV is an example – are making anti-racism training compulsory for all employees. Some educational institutions, such as the University of Sheffield, are making the training compulsory for their sports teams. Some have suggested that firms should employ anti-racism and diversity consultants with the required skills to ensure that barriers are properly identified and measures put in place to reduce race and gender discrimination.

Others have suggested that unconscious bias training is not effective. For example, Jeffery Halter – President of YWomen, a consultant firm that helps organisations create more leadership opportunities for women – has said unconscious bias is 'very deeply rooted; a few hours of one-off training will not drive change in an organisation'.

Other types of training have also been suggested. One participant in my research stated that 'training alone means nothing', indicating that interaction with diverse groups is necessary to make these connections and cultivate a change in behaviour.

Support from senior leadership

Diversity must not be a tick-box exercise. There needs to be more monitoring of equal opportunity policies, and those in senior positions need to encourage change by being directly involved in implementing diversity policy. They need to show their employees the way forward.

One way to ensure gender and ethnic diversity is effectively monitored and appropriately handled is the use of data. Currently, companies must publish their gender pay gap information, so a similar mechanism could be introduced for ethnic pay disparity. If these figures were published it would make the issue public and lead to the implementation of more rigorous diversity policies, increasing accountability. As a result, more women of colour would be able to reach leadership positions.

Direct support from senior management on diversity initiatives would also encourage the wider team to be more inclusive, highlighting the importance of diversity. One participant stated that structural change is needed, and this would require support of senior management. Another participant said white male colleagues need to be at the centre of discussions to enable change and raise awareness.

Neelam Raja is a cost manager at Turner & Townsend
Contact Neelam: Email | LinkedIn

Related competencies include: Diversity, inclusion and teamworking, Ethics, Rules of Conduct and professionalism

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