A smiling woman and a man work on a construction site

by Emma Hayes, Regional Lead for Dublin, Ireland and Managing Director at Digital Built Consultants

10 years ago, you could not have predicted the changes we have seen in the construction industry.

A changing industry has led to new roles within the construction teams, with BIM Managers, BIM Coordinators and BIM Technicians now common titles, as well as roles dedicated to managing innovation.

Yet, the skills gap in the construction industry is well documented both nationally and internationally. As PJ Rudden, the Chairman of Construction Innovation and Digital Adoption, within the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, noted in his interview with Irish Building Magazine earlier this year, the skills gap within the construction industry is of great concern.

It is also well documented that if the construction industry is to continue to innovate and become more efficient it needs to become more diverse. According to the McKinsey report, Why Diversity Matters, gender-diverse companies are 14% more likely to perform better than non-diverse companies and ethnically-diverse companies are 35% more likely to perform better. I hope that these emerging roles will attract new and diverse talent to the industry which will help bridge the skills gap but it is not evident yet. According to the ‘Building Future Skills’ report published in September 2020 prepared by the National Skills Council, BIM Operators/ Experts are the second most difficult to recruit following Quantity Surveyors.

So how do we encourage future recruits to follow a path into this area of the industry? How do we entice women, who represent just over 50% of the population, into a traditionally male workforce?

My journey into the world of digital construction started over 10 years ago where I was first introduced to Building Information Modelling (BIM) on a post-graduate course at the Dublin Institute of Technology (now TU Dublin).

I was working as an architectural technologist with PM Group, who were at the time just starting their BIM journey, and I was given the opportunity to work with a task team to pilot BIM tools and develop digital processes in the organisation.

The more involved in BIM adoption and implementation I got the more convinced I was that this was going to be a game-changer for the industry. So in 2013, I started a part-time distance learning MSc in BIM management through Middlesex University.

Interestingly, my research dissertation was on the virtual interaction of BIM project teams where I investigated remote working for globally dispersed project teams – this has never been more topical with the global pandemic and the need for people to work remotely.

At this time I was also promoted to Group BIM Manager in PM Group, where I was responsible for the development and group-wide implementation of the Organisational BIM strategy across their network of 18 offices in Europe, Asia and the US for over 2,500 staff. This experience was invaluable and led me to start my own BIM consultancy, Digital Built Consultants, in 2018.

I believe that my career would not have developed to this point without the support and guidance of peers and role models I met in industry. I also believe that if girls have role models from construction this will encourage them to consider a career in construction.

Women in BIM (WiB) are encouraging women to follow a career in construction through support and mentoring which can make a difference. As the Irish Regional Lead for WiB, I have met many like-minded women who understand what is needed to entice and keep women in the construction industry.

The core drivers for this network are to encourage and support, attract and promote, advance and retain but these drivers are not unique to WIB and other areas of the construction industry can adopt a similar approach.

What can we learn from the WiB core drivers when looking at how to entice women into a career in construction?

Encourage and Support

Having a network of mentors (both male and female) who provide support and encouragement to women starting their careers to develop their skills and achieve their personal and professional goals.

Attract and Promote

We have all heard the slogan ’if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’, in the context of encouraging young women and girls to participate more in sport or male-dominated careers. With that in mind, the WiB network encourages its members to present at conferences and write articles and to have their voice heard in the industry. In doing this they are being role models to future female construction personnel by showing them that there is a career path for young women in the industry, and demonstrating that there a career in construction is possible and, more importantly, that it is rewarding.

Advance and Retain

Disappointingly, research shows that a number of women leave careers in construction after only a few years. This can be for many different reasons, but mainly because of gender pay gaps, lack of opportunities and discrimination. WIB celebrate women in BIM roles and provide opportunities for further advancement, but what can BIM offer to women considering a career in construction?

As innovation drives change, construction is becoming less about manual labour, cold site offices and ‘muddy boots’, and more about offsite modern methods of construction and digital processes which may be more appealing to women. The construction site is becoming a safer environment where manual strength is not necessary to assemble a building. BIM is key to the successful delivery of these innovative construction methods, and women can play a very important role right through the project lifecycle.

There are now more diverse, rewarding and challenging opportunities that are not gender-specific and will hopefully dispel the perception that construction is a male-dominated industry. Roles such as BIM consultant, BIM manager, BIM coordinator and BIM technician are needed at all stages of the project, from the early strategic stage, advising the client on how they can leverage BIM for their project, to the design stage, where multi-discipline collaboration enhances decision making, to the construction stage, where BIM is used for logistics, planning and coordination, right through to the in-use stage, where BIM is used for facilities management. In order for the industry to attract women and encourage diversity we need to publicise these roles and opportunities.

What else can the construction industry do?

  • Highlight a career in construction to second-level students through programmes like Engineers Ireland STEPS and ensure that women are well represented in these programmes.
  • In addition to engaging with second-level students, it is now widely understood that we need to engage with young people even before they go to secondary school. Therefore, having female role models promoting construction careers in primary school is also critical to appeal to young girls.
  • Clearly promote the wide range of exciting roles and opportunities and showcase how the industry is developing into a diverse environment to dispel the outdated image of the male-dominated workplace.
  • Sustain the proactive campaigns such as the Construction Industry Federation’s campaign ‘Building Equality, Be a role model, Inspire’, that the industry has run in recent years to recruit women into construction.
  • Raise the profile of women to help encourage others into the industry through role models and mentoring.
  • Since women currently make up less than 10% of the Irish construction workforce, we need men to take responsibility and become actively involved in driving change.
  • More transparency is needed for gender pay gaps to promote equality between men and women in similar roles
  • In the past, construction was seen to have a culture of sexism, discrimination and bullying, but in order for women to see the industry as a career prospect, it is critical that we eliminate this perception and showcase the industry as an inclusive and supportive culture.

Many of these steps are already being addressed by the industry, but I think it is important to reiterate them so we keep the momentum and see more girls choosing careers in construction, and more women staying in construction to take on leading roles in the industry.

If more women and men who are currently in the industry engage with these steps, we can strive to be an industry where if you can see it, you can be it!