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Should I stay or should I go? Retaining women in project management

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At the moment, an overwhelming 75% of female STEM graduates choose to go – leaving the industry within the first year of joining. To put four years of education, dedication and commitment behind, and change course is not a decision that’s made lightly. In true engineering terms, this can be thought of as a ‘leaky pipeline’. Simultaneously, skills shortages and recruitment are one of the biggest challenges facing the industry today with over 216,800 construction jobs in the UK needing filling by 2025. By retaining women in project management we have an opportunity to both improve diversity and overcome the skills shortage – and plug the leak.

Three emerging solutions could help retain women at various stages within their careers in projects:

1. Improving the culture

New entrants are finding today’s site culture a deterrent. Several women shared early experiences on site that turned them away from site-based project roles and towards consultancy work or other sectors entirely.

An informal poll has indicated that 85% of the SheBuilds community – an online engineering community for women in construction – have experienced sexism, racism and/or other discrimination whilst at work, and 94% have seen it happen to others at work. Whilst acknowledging that SheBuilds is a self-selecting demographic, it is clear that inappropriate behaviour towards women on construction sites is still current. We need to tackle these issues head on to ensure everyone who chooses to join us is welcomed with a supportive work environment.

Workplace culture is shaped by individuals. The ripple effect created within teams and colleagues through small changes in an individual’s own approach should not be underestimated, especially for those in senior positions who cast a longer shadow. For more structured culture change, solutions such as reverse mentoring; respect campaigns that focus on listening to women in the workplace; and actioning suggested changes to create a more inclusive and less isolating workplace, are great places to start.

2. Providing flexibility

The project-based model in construction lends itself well to career-breaks and sabbaticals. Natural gaps to breathe in between projects, allows teams to energise, capture lessons learned and reflect.

The current economic model results in many families losing money when both parents return to work, due to the high cost of childcare. We need to be better at implementing agile solutions, of which there are many – flexible working policies relating to both time and location, part-time options, confidence and empowerment workshops, and job shares – just to name a few. A significant pay-gap leveller is providing more balanced parental leave.

After noticing that female employees who had recently given birth were leaving the company at twice the rate of other employees, Google increased their maternity leave from three months at partial pay to five months at full pay. The result? Their retention rate increased by 50%.

Paternity leave is equally important. By reserving three months of paid parental leave exclusively for fathers since 2016, Sweden increased their paternity leave uptake from 6% to 90%. This is a contributing factor to Sweden also having the highest female employment figures in the EU, at close to 80%.

Flexible working does not just apply to parents. By making agile working the norm, we can avoid unintentionally excluding people who require flexibility for other reasons, such as: invisible caring responsibilities, challenges that come with mental health and neurodiversity, looking after ageing family members or just wanting work-life balance. Let’s seize the opportunity presented from our project-based model to create a more inclusive workforce, encouraging women to return to work, stay at work, or even join our industry by helping to reskill those seeking a career-change into the built environment.

3. Evaluating senior and leadership roles: the concrete ceiling

Quantitative metrics, if used at all, when recruiting for senior and leadership positions often benefit those focused on outputs, and disadvantage people who tend to focus on outcomes. To paraphrase Professor Priti Parikh, Professor and Senior Researcher at University College London: "Progression metrics often do not reflect the unmeasured range of enabling and facilitating roles, which are very often taken on by women. The engineering industry will need to open up progression opportunities in a transparent manner and review historical metrics for progression to make sure they are inclusive and build on strengths that women bring to the table."

If we don’t re-evaluate what qualities are perceived to make strong senior leaders, we are losing out on incredible candidates who bring varied experience, exacerbating the concrete ceiling and gender pay gap.

Although The Clash were unlikely to have been singing about maternity leave or flexible working, the philosophical question remains - should I stay or should I go? Things need to get better quickly, and there are many opportunities for individuals, teams and companies to start implementing solutions straight away.

Want to share your thoughts on this subject? SheBuilds Collective is an engineering community aimed at sharing inspirational content and creating a supportive community for the women who have chosen to stay. Find out more about @shebuilds.collective on Instagram.


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