“A sector that focuses only on a traditional male labour pool and overlooks women is missing out on a vast source of potential workers.”

Speech by the Minister of State with special responsibility for Equality, Immigration, and Integration Mr David Stanton, TD to the CIF Building Equality Breakfast Briefing

Friday 21 September 2018, Eaton Corporation, Eaton House, 30 Pembroke Rd, Dublin 4. 

“I would like to extend my thanks to the Construction Industry Federation, and to our hosts, the Eaton Group, for inviting me to say a few words this morning.

I should mention that, before becoming a full time public representative, I worked as a second level school teacher of educational woodwork and construction studies. I also worked for many years as a career guidance counsellor. So I hope I have some insight into the important decisions young people make in choosing their future occupational and career paths. I also know about career changes later in life, which is increasingly a feature of the modern labour market.

The Construction Industry Federation’s Building Equality campaign is timely and very welcome. In fact, “building equality” is a theme that resonates particularly strongly with me. I am Minister of State with special responsibility for equality, immigration and integration. Effectively, “building equality” is my current job description. I very much appreciate that, with Building Equality, the CIF has decided to begin with female participation as the first prong in its drive to increase diversity in the sector, but has every intention to extend the programme in the future to other dimensions of diversity.

Advancing women’s empowerment is a key theme running through the Programme for a Partnership Government, and one that I am driving forward, with the implementation of the National Strategy for Women and Girls. This Strategy sets out a wide-ranging agenda for change. It is working to open up opportunities for women and girls in all areas of Irish life – the workplace, politics, sport, the arts – and to improve the financial position of women. With a gender pay gap measured at 13.9% in 2014, among the areas identified for action is the need to challenge the occupational segregation of women, and to promote women’s progression into and participation in decision-making roles.

Earlier this summer, on 30 July, I had the great pleasure of announcing, with the Taoiseach, the launch of the Better Balance for Better Business Review Group. This is a business-led initiative to promote better gender balance on corporate boards and in the senior management of leading Irish companies. The review group is co-chaired by Gary Kennedy and Bríd Horan, assisted by other senior figures in Irish business and the public service. We recognise that the Review Group should have access to a wide range of relevant viewpoints, skills, knowledge and experience. I am very pleased therefore that Tom Parlon, Director General of the Construction Industry Federation, has agreed contribute his extensive experience and expertise as a member of the Advisory Group being established to assist Bríd and Gary in their work. I strongly encourage companies in the construction sector to engage with Better Balance for Better Business and to support Bríd and Gary in this important work.

I am very pleased to have the construction sector involved in Better Balance for Better Business, as I am convinced that greater gender balance will contribute to a healthy, functioning, construction industry, that is so vitally important to our nation’s growing needs. Irish society is becoming more diverse. We are a more international society, with a greater variety of life experiences, cultural backgrounds and lifestyles than was the case even twenty years ago. We are living longer and our working lives are longer. Many of us have or will develop a disability during our lives. According to the 2016 Census, 13.5% of us have a disability and this figure includes over 130,000 people who are at work. All these changes are reflected in our expectations of the built environment and will impact on what we build, for whom, and how.

For the construction industry, an important aspect of the “how” is labour, your people. As has been noted by SOLAS and others, an additional 112,000 are anticipated to be needed in order to meet our housing and infrastructure requirements in the coming years. So, numbers are an issue.

Also is the skillset needed for construction work in the modern era. Not only is the range of skills needed in the modern construction industry expanding due to technological advances, it is also driven by a need to better understand and better respond to the diversity in society.

While in many ways our society has come so far, we cannot ignore the fact that many traditional stereotypes still exist. This is particularly when it comes to industries like construction, which have historically been male-dominated. However, it is important for us to acknowledge that the barriers that limit women’s potential also diminish men’s. It is in the interests of men and boys that we have a society that is willing to realise and maximise the potential of all of its members. That is why I take every opportunity to urge male business leaders to play their part to bring about sustainable cultural change.

A sector that focuses only on a traditional male labour pool and overlooks women is missing out on a vast source of potential workers. More crucially, it is also missing out on the range of talents that a more diverse and inclusive team can bring to the table along with their collective insight into Irish and global societies. It is on such teams that future success will be founded. This is how we will know what to build, for whom and how.

In recognising the value of a workforce that includes men and women across the full range of roles, the construction industry has taken a very important step. The CIF survey published earlier this year shows Irish construction firms overwhelmingly accept that improving gender balance is associated with a more vibrant workplace and with improved decision-making. This acceptance, however, stands in stark contrast to practice – with the level of female representation in on-site positions, at 1%, and in CEO/Managing Director roles, at 3%. This sets the scale of the challenge. But I remind you that solving practical and real-life problems is embedded in the very DNA of the construction industry. It is not a sector to shy away from such a challenge.

Having acknowledged the existence of an issue with gender balance in the sector, where do you begin to address it? Do you begin top down, with company and sectoral leadership? Should you begin bottom-up, by targeting potential women recruits? Or is it in the middle, looking at retention and promotion of women already in the industry, and emphasising their value as role models? The answer, of course, is all of the above, and more. All of these approaches are important of themselves, but even more so, in concert.

The CIF’s ambitious Building Equality campaign, which touches on each of these dimensions, will be key to the further success of the industry. I am pleased to join in celebrating the work that has been done over the last year, and the leadership commitment it demonstrates.

Indeed, experience and research tells us, time and time again, that unless we as leaders believe in the mission, are authentic and walk the talk, the change we say we want remains elusively over the horizon. This authentic leadership is where the CIF has a critical role to play. This is also where you, as the leaders and influencers of the construction sector, come in.

I welcome the willingness of the CIF to look beyond gender stereotypes and to innovate in order to attract and retain female talent. In acknowledging the challenges of the modern labour market and seeking to position the industry to reap the benefits of diversity in its workforce and leadership, you are embracing change in a way that I would strongly encourage other, similarly challenged, sectors to follow.

Raising awareness of the many women already working in a variety of roles throughout construction, and encouraging firms to champion these pioneers as role models, has great potential. I applaud the generosity of the talented women who have stepped forward so that others can see and follow – it is not always easy to be in the spotlight.

A point that tends to be overlooked, and is worth highlighting to students and their parents considering future career options, is that many modern jobs in construction are relatively well paid. At the National Symposium on the Gender Pay Gap last January, the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland reported that the gender pay gap in the profession had narrowed to 5% last year. As I mentioned before, the average gender pay gap is 13.9%. This emphasises how, when women move into previously male-dominated areas, they tend to enjoy higher than average pay levels.

The Government is committed to broadening access to career opportunities, beginning with education and skills. The National Skills Strategy 2025, introduced in 2016, is providing a framework for skills development that will help drive Ireland’s growth both economically and societally over the next decade, coordinating the efforts of over 50 different stakeholders. Among its priority areas, the Skills Strategy is encouraging increased participation of women in the workforce – in particular in STEM-related occupations and in the apprenticeship area.

The STEM Education Policy Statement 2017-2026 recently launched by my colleague Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, has a key ambition to increase by 20% the total students taking Chemistry, Physics, Technology and Engineering for Leaving Certificate, and to increase by 40% the number of females taking STEM subjects for Leaving Certificate.

Low female participation in apprenticeships has been one of the areas of concern for some time. SOLAS has been working with the National Women’s Council of Ireland to identify the reasons for this, so they can be addressed. It is encouraging to hear that the latest figures indicate there are 173 female apprentices registered, a significant increase on the 2015 figure of just 26. In addition to the 34 apprenticeship schemes currently on offer, approximately 20 new apprenticeship areas will be introduced over the next few years, so hopefully this upward trend in female participation in apprenticeships will continue. The Building Equality campaign, and similar initiatives, will be important in highlighting to women the opportunities available to them in the construction-related apprenticeships.

I would urge you also, in your recruitment, to consider people returning to the labour market after absences, and people open to a career change. Last year, eligibility for Springboard+ was extended to include homemakers, with 412 female returners taking up the opportunity to reskill. Springboard+, if you recall, is the Government programme providing free higher education courses in key growth sectors of the economy for unemployed people, those previously self-employed and those returning to work. Courses in engineering and construction have been approved for funding under Springboard+ 2018, with 15 construction-related courses on offer providing for 303 places.

The apprenticeship and Springboard+ programmes are among the opportunities open to the construction sector to engage with women returning to the workforce after an absence.

Retention of women in the sector needs a focus on supportive workplace culture and transparency in career progression. The CIF’s determination to encourage the construction industry to become more open and to ensure construction offers attractive career paths for women, is laudable. These initiatives include creating the Diversity and Inclusion Guidance document launched today.

Before I conclude, I have one final point to make, and it concerns the value to a business of having a formal, written policy on equality, diversity and inclusion. As far back as 2009, research carried out by the Equality Authority, as it was then, concluded that having formal equality policies was associated with benefits for both employees and the organisations they worked for. Employees in such companies were much more likely to consider that opportunities for recruitment, pay and promotion were fair in their organisation. The presence of an equality policy was also associated with somewhat lower levels of work pressure and work-life conflict, higher job satisfaction and higher employee commitment to their organisation.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity this morning to acknowledge the Building Equality initiative, and to emphasise the importance of continuing work by the Construction Industry Federation and its membership to promote greater involvement of women in the construction sector.

I thank you for your attention and wish you all success with this initiative.”

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