PR: proud, practical, not propagandists

CIPR CAPSIG research regarding women in construction PR and marketing showed considerable pride in working in the sector, and recommended some changes to help develop a better, more diverse industry. Colleges and others are also taking practical steps – not turning into propagandists with another ‘lipstick on a pig’ campaign.

The image of construction has been on my mind again lately. On Tuesday 11 September 2018, it was my last task as chair* of the Chartered Institute of Public RelationsConstruction and Property Special Interest Group to invite my committee colleague Jo Field to introduce CAPSIG’s report on research into the experiences and attitudes of women who work in construction and property PR and marketing.

Survey fieldwork began in February 2018 and JFG communications gathered 163 responses from women working in communication and marketing roles across the construction and property sectors. The questionnaire responses were then augmented by a series of in-depth interviews with a subset of the research sample.

You’ve got to accentuate the positive …

The survey report – launched at Bentley Systems’ offices in the City of London – found women overwhelmingly reported felt proud to work in the construction sector. Almost 90% of those who took part agreed the construction sector offers a wide range of interesting projects to work on. However, the industry needs to ‘shout’ more about the great things it is doing and the exciting projects it offers, according to those questioned. Field said:

Jo Field

“This is the first time research has been carried out with the niche group of women who work in construction PR.

“The level of pride women feel at working in the sector despite is fantastic. The women who took part were especially proud to be involved in an industry that shapes the world around us. The more women thought there are a wide range of interesting projects to work on, the more proud they felt working in the sector.

Those who took part also felt the industry is changing for the better and said they were proud to be part of making a positive change.”

Eliminate the negative …

However, women’s perceptions of construction industry culture were slightly more negative, with over three-quarters (76%) believing the sector is ‘macho’. Less than two in five (38%) believe the sector is an attractive place for women to work and only 14% of those questioned believe women and men are treated equally.

When asked about gender issues in construction, a large proportion of women (61%) reported experiencing unconscious bias. ‘Conscious’ bias was also reported, where women were subjected to jokes about ‘making the coffee’ or ‘making the sandwiches’.

According to those questioned, the construction sector has been slow to adapt to flexible working, even though over four-fifths (88%) of those who took part thought more flexible working would attract women into the industry.

The survey findings also revealed a lack of mentors and sponsors for women in construction PR. Four-fifths of those questioned did not have a mentor or a sponsor but over half (54%) would like one. The CAPSIG report recommended five areas where support could be improved:

  1. Promote and encourage flexible working
  2. Support the sector to promote and provide women’s staff network groups
  3. Support the sector to promote a positive image
  4. Launch a mentoring scheme
  5. Provide a service to help members address challenges

Discussion at the research launch event included numerous anecdotes from female PR and marketing practitioners about their experiences of working in a male-dominated industry – from being called “the PR girl” to being expected to make the tea. Other examples included the January 2018 Presidents Club furore, the low representation of women in industry award shortlists, unfortunate award event ‘entertainment’, use of scantily clad women at construction trade shows (eg: UK Construction Week in October 2017 – Dezeen news report), and a recent Jark construction recruitment campaign featuring a bikini-clad woman asking “Want to see my white bits? … Oops sorry, I meant white collar candidates” (EDP news report).

I mentioned campaigns to reduce skills shortages and improve the diversity of construction, including Alison Watson’s Design-Engineer-Construct programme. Many construction colleges are also trying to encourage young women to consider careers in the sector – I got news of one last month.

Latch on to the affirmative …

In southeast England, MidKent College has seen the number of females opting to learn about the industry rise from 141 in 2014/15 to 216 in 2018/19. However, to raise the numbers still further, the college believes it has to challenge gender stereotypes.

Kim Howes, programme director for building services design engineering, said: “The construction industry is
still very male dominated:

“The construction industry is still very male dominated…. All the trade magazines and publications have a big focus on men in the industry whereas women are either hidden or shown in supportive roles, like HR. Not all construction paths are grimy and dirty – the design and management fields can be office-based.

“The breadth of career options is just not realised or communicated. Construction is a fulfilling career that could take people around the world. Women are very creative and the construction industry has a need for those with a creative and design talent. We need to pique young women’s interest when they’re at primary school and encourage them to get hands-on, and messy.”

Able students can certainly thrive. One of the college’s students, Lindsey Todd, currently a contract manager for Orbit Homes, recently won a CIOB award for outstanding achievement. She said:

Lindsey Todd

“I would definitely recommend other women take up a course in construction – there are just not enough of us on site. There’s a few more in the employer’s agent type roles, but in hands-on subcontractor roles there’s very few. I think I’ve seen one painter and decorator, and one tiler. It’s a very male-dominated arena.”

You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum …

Bing Crosby sang about the need to “accentuate the positive” and “eliminate the negative,” and I’ve had it on my mind over the past week. Yet another campaign (and another one using ‘Love Construction’) has been launched to, as Bing might croon, “spread joy up to the maximum“.

I have talked repeatedly (herehereherehere and here, for example) about how permanently improving ‘The Image of Construction’ cannot be achieved simply by running a campaign. Construction News, the CITB, and Build UK (among others) have all encouraged us to promote the industry’s achievements and highlight how much we love working in the industry, but such campaigns just gloss over some of the underlying systemic issues that give construction a poor reputation (I rehashed my arguments yet again in January 2018 after the collapse of Carillion reinforced how precarious many construction businesses are). Briefly, to change the reputation of the industry currently known as UK construction, you have to change the attitudes, behaviours and outdated realities of UK construction – and this will require sustained pan-industry action to address the many deep-rooted challenges.

CCS loves constructionThe latest organisation seeking to change people’s view of the construction sector is the Considerate Constructors Scheme. It is running a well-intended Promoting Construction campaign calling for everyone involved in the industry to promote a positive image of construction on social media using the hashtag #loveconstruction (almost exactly five years after Construction News asked much the same). It enthuses:

“Inspirational images, such as amazing buildings, technology, craftsmanship and innovation, a fabulous diverse workforce and an industry which looks after the environment and its workforce are all ways in which we can promote construction.”

… bring gloom down to the minimum ….

I heard considerable scepticism about some of these messages when talking to industry friends last week, and it is clear I am not the only one with a somewhat jaundiced view. For example, coverage of the CCS campaign in industry online publication The Construction Index said the CCS had “expanded its remit from good neighbourliness to industry cheerleader and propagandist in chief” and finished by wryly noting:

“The realities of industry life – such as blacklisting, combustible cladding, structural failures, productivity problems, price fixing and shafting suppliers – are not to intrude.”

The writer clearly felt – as I do – that we need resolve some substantial underlying issues inside the industry if we are to change how it is regarded outside the industry. CIPR CAPSIG has identified some small steps organisations can take in respect of its female PR practitioners – but there’s clearly a huge lot more to be done.

[* I stepped down as chair of CAPSIG at an EGM held just prior to the research report’s launch. However, I remain involved – I am now the group’s secretary.]

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Paul Wilkinson is the founder of Limited, a specialist PR and technology consultancy. He is an independent practitioner, a Fellow of the CIPR, and chairs the Construction and Property group (CAPSIG) and is the past chair of the CIPR Policy and Campaigns Committee.

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