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Women wanted

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Drawing on her own personal experience, Jess Costanzo, specification sales manager at Simmtronic, discusses the gender disparity within the industry, highlighting where the UK is falling short, the unsung opportunities available to young people and what we can do to not only encourage more women to get involved, but how we can help create a more female-friendly sector.

The construction industry worldwide needs to constantly evolve in the face of adversity. A diverse workforce paves the way for originality, and questions conventional thinking, to find innovative solutions to tackle today’s challenges head on. There are over 15.5 million women in work in the UK, and yet such a small number have found their way into the construction industry. We can do better than that.

I lead the Specification Engineering team at Simmtronic – an independent specialist, manufacturing fully intelligent lighting control systems for thousands of projects across the UK. I work extensively with electrical engineers at all levels (both within electrical contracting firms and building services engineering consultancies), specifiers, contractors and clients alike to deliver projects.

One in every 1,000 electrical contractors is female. Add into the mix that the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe – only 11% of the engineering workforce is female -– and it is unsurprising that such gender disparity has resulted in the significant gender pay and skills gaps. Construction is the worst offending sector, with women earning only 76p for each £1 earned by their male colleagues. Only 14.5% of construction workers are female according to the UK’s Construction Industry Training Board (CITB).

Despite these startling figures, I myself have not experienced a stigma around women working within the electrical building sector. There is, however, definitely a lack of awareness, particularly regarding potential career opportunities for women and girls. 

More needs to be done to encourage women to pursue a career in the construction industry. Starting at educational level, addressing the skills gap is key (the UK wide shortage of trained trade professionals in any and all trades), and helping all young people realise that having a trade, particularly being an electrician, plumber or carpenter is actually hugely advantageous. You can take home around £1,000 a week as a crane operator for example – if you are willing to put the hours and hard work in.

Simmtronic recently had a stand at a careers fair for Warrington and Vale College, where a number of young girls were coming over to ask me what I did as a job. Many of them hadn’t given a thought to any potential careers in construction – one of them even remarked “isn’t that just building things?” to which I replied, “Of course not! We need project managers, engineers, accountants, document controllers. The construction industry at large holds wonderful opportunities for everyone. We need as many team players as possible.”

I’m passionate about inspiring and encouraging others, hence me visiting career fairs, and I’m currently working on a programme in my own time, to encourage young people of all backgrounds to consider a career in building services engineering. 

There are so many job roles involved in delivering electrical building services – most of which I interact with on a daily basis. How many of these people are women? Less than a third, and most of these are at junior levels within electrical engineering or working as lighting designers and architects. 

Many of the young women I’ve met as electrical engineers are not British, but Greek, Italian, Bulgarian, Finnish, or Indian. This speaks volumes about the culture within our current educational system, where we direct our young people to seek careers. I came into the sector through familial ties, having been exposed to the construction and electrical industries from a very young age, along with my dad’s enthusiasm for, and awe of, the built environment. It was infectious, and I’m eternally grateful for that influence, but not everyone has had that opportunity. We need to create those experiences for our young people, and particularly, young women.

With this in mind, I was lucky enough to secure a work experience placement with my current employer at 15, which made me aware of the opportunities available within the industry. This snapshot whetted my appetite further and led me to go on and study a BA(Hons) in Business Management with Sustainable Business at the University of Winchester (2011-2014). The course content further opened my eyes to the opportunities to make a difference in the construction industry, particularly in improving sustainability in the built environment.

My day-to-day role involves consulting with a wide variety of talented professionals on finding the best solution for a given project, running CPD seminars for hundreds of engineers annually, and negotiating on projects. My main enjoyment, however, comes from the consultancy element – helping others to learn about lighting control. Liaising with different audiences across different ages and cultures provides us all with useful insights and a well-rounded understanding as to why the industry is as it is and what we as a company can do to help aid its development.

For me, one explanation for the gender skills and pay gaps in the UK electrical industry, could be the fact that we tend to see girls going towards careers in financial services, legal services, social work etc. Why is this? Are they pushed in this direction, or just unaware that there are other avenues in other industries that their skills could be suited too as well? Whilst the aforementioned are all fantastic career options, the building services industry and the construction industry needs skilled workers and engineers too, and there are plenty of extremely intelligent and capable young women out there. 

Many firms are yet to make inroads in addressing the balance. I believe it would help stereotypes if business got involved within education, prior to Key Stage 4 (GCSE level), and provided a diverse range of role models to young people to show that there’s careers for all. 

When it comes to recruitment agencies, hiring managers should also look at CVs and cover letters blind – meaning that recruiters/HR Manager should remove defining characteristics (for example somebody’s name) off of the CV, so that there isn’t any prejudice when reviewing a candidate’s suitability for a role. 

Certain firms we work with have begun to take positive steps by acknowledging the balance disparity – ARUP/ Skanska and Lendlease to name but a few. They have researched diversity extensively within their companies. I’ve been impressed with how Arup, for example, has managed to address that balance throughout the junior levels already. Representation on company boards and committees has also seen increased diversity in membership over recent years. 

I have very recently just recruited for a graduate specification engineer for our northern office, and only received three CVs from young women, despite over 30 applicants being sent through from the recruitment companies. Compare this to when I helped recruit our marketing manager; all the shortlisted candidates were women. This figure speaks volumes, even though they are small numbers. 

It’s 110 years since International Women’s Day was first observed, and, yet, 2019 still finds every industry continues to pay men more on average than women. Thanks, however, to cultural and societal shifts prompted by the #MeToo movement, small changes are evidently afoot. 

I want to help spread the message and encourage more women into this trade. If you have the passion, then go for it – the world of construction is rife with opportunity. 


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