The EU construction industry’s future is facing a chronic labour shortage. The demand outweighs supply currently. Women make up only 9% of the construction industry’s workforce in Europe, missing out on a huge talent pool. Construction labour shortages in the EU are expected to worsen as the population declines and the workforce ages. The EU construction sector needs to employ more women if it is to have a sustainable future.
Construction Industry in Europe
The construction sector has been influenced by seismic global events, the war in Ukraine together with the legacy of Covid-19 has affected every fabric of social and economic life. The lingering impact bears witness to price inflation that directly affects the construction sector through soaring material costs and rising energy prices.
The construction sector is currently in a period of stagnation in terms of growth ending 2022 with a growth of 3%, in line with forecasts from Euroconstruct (1), which estimated a growth of 3.6% for 2022. The sector is expected to stagnate by a further 0.2% and forecasts for 2024 predict further stagnation for the sector. Current GDP contributions by the construction sector in the EU is 5.5%. Gross Value Added (GVA) has been varying over the last 13 years, increasing in the period 2014 – 2017, falling 5.1% in 2018-2019 and increasing to 5.5% in 2020 and 2021. Among the EU countries where GVA has fallen significantly between 2010 and 2021 are Spain, Bulgaria, Greece, and Slovakia, while the highest growth rates were recorded in Hungary, Lithuania, Denmark, Germany, and Finland, with Finland top of the table with a growth of 7% in 2021 (ibid).
Investment in housing
Eurostat indicates that in 2021 5.6% of GDP in the EU will be invested in the housing sector, although this is an irregular figure. For example, the highest percentage of investment is found in countries such as Germany with 7.2% of its GDP or Cyprus with 7.6%, while the lowest figures are found in Greece with a total of 1.3% or Ireland with 2.1%. (ibid).
- Germany 7,2%
- Denmark 6%
- Spain 5,4%
- Poland 2,3%
- Ireland 2,1%
Figure in the right: Investment in housing in Germany, Denmark, Spain, Poland, and Ireland. Adapted from Investment in housing (in % of GDP) (2021) Source: Eurostat
Women in construction
Women have historically worked in construction since the Middle Ages. Written accounts of women who worked on the construction of Toledo Cathedral in Spain during the 15th century. Woodward, 1995 notes that
“At Durham in 1687 John Baker and his son worked for four and a half days and Margaret Baker his wife’ for two days repairing the flags in church and cloisters and carrying away the dirt’ – John received 12d a day, compared with the normal 10d for labourer, and his son and wife each got 6d a day”. (2)
After the industrial revolution many women began to stand out in the construction sector, women such as Ethel Charles, the first woman member of the Royal Institute of British Architects or Julia Morgan, the first female member of the École Nationale Supériere des Beaux-Arts School of Architecture in Paris in 1902. We should not forget that, during the Second World War, women played a very important role in occupying many construction jobs, due to the war and the lack of male labour (ibid). Fast forward to the present day and European figures indicates that the construction sector inhabits the lowest representation of women, while domestic activities or the health and social sector have the highest representation of women with 88% and 78% respectively .(3)
Figure on the right: Share of women by economic activity. Employment by sex, age, and economic activity (from 2008 onwards, NACE Rev.2) – 100, (2023). Source: Eurostat.
Levelling the playing field
There is a lot of work to be done to encourage more women into the industry. Equality does not work when dealing with gender and diversity. However, equity does. You cannot apply the exact same conditions to men and women and expect the same results. An image best explains this.
Figure on the left: Source: https://interactioninstitute.org/illustrating-equality-vs-equity/
In practice what does this mean? Women by our very physical make up have different needs. Learn what they are and ensure those needs are met. To provide some examples.
- What facilities and policies do you have in place to cater for this monthly phenomenon?
- Do you have sanitary bins in the washrooms?
- Do you notice if your female colleague looks like she is in pain or unwell?
- Do you have Maternity leave policy in place?
- Do you have a miscarriage leave policy in place?
- Do you have a flexi time policy in place like for school runs?
- Are you open to different contract types such as shorter working days for returners?
- Do you have a work life balance policy in place?
- Do you have female employees who are front and centre in your organisation?
- What jobs do they occupy?
- Are there mentorship schemes available in your organisation?
- Do you promote the work you do regarding gender equity?
Training and Education
- Are career pathways available to employees?
- Are upskilling and reskilling opportunities available?
- Do you have a pension plan in place for employees?
The above list is not exhaustive but goes someway in getting companies and the sector to think about implementing enabling conditions that allow all their employees to flourish. Bettering work conditions benefits everyone including the company.
1 Euroconstruct – Summary of the Euroconstruct report. (November 2022): https://itec.es/servicios/estudios-mercado/euroconstruct-sumario-ultimo-informe/. Accessed in May 2023
2 Woodward, D. 1995 Men at Work: Labourers and Building Craftsmen in the Towns of Northern England 1450–1750, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3 Share of women by economic activity (from 2008 onwards, NACE Rev.2) – 100, (2023). Eurostat 2023
Author: Mary Whitney is Director of Education at Future Cast and founding member of Women in Construction Quarrying Ireland (WICQI).
Mary is lead researcher for Future Cast on an Erasmus+ project FEMCON whose mission is to create innovative vocational education and training tools to help women working in or considering a career in the construction industry advance to visible roles within the industry. The project’s goal is to make the industry more appealing to women, resulting in a greater number of women choosing the sector, creating conditions for positive change, and improving the industry’s gender outlook and quality of life in the male-dominated sector. Learn more about the project here