When more women work, economies grow. Yet, despite an abundance of evidence highlighting the positive correlation between gender parity and progress, certain industries have been less than successful at increasing their number of female employees. Construction is one such sector. As a female disputes lawyer who has worked in the sector for more than 25 years, 18 of those years in the Middle East, I am passionate about this issue and would like to see change for the better.
The UAE’s construction industry has recovered well following the pandemic, recording strong activity in the first quarter of 2022. Despite the industry being a key component of a diversified UAE economy, the number of women working within the sector remains low. The Chartered Institute of Building in the Mena region has an estimated 1,300 members, of which only 190 are female; this is very much in line with other major markets – in the US, women comprise 10.9 per cent of people working in construction. There are several reasons why the industry has struggled to attract and retain female employees. However, it is not through a lack of interest in the profession per se. The fact that Reed Smith has more female construction lawyers than male in the Middle East is testament to just that. Achieving gender parity in the construction industry must start with education.
Fifty seven per cent of the UAE’s graduates in Stem courses at government universities are women. Meanwhile, females represent 60 per cent of Emirati graduate students at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. This demonstrates that the interest is certainly there. Industry leaders must work with schools and universities to drive understanding of the diverse roles available in the sector and to build confidence in our young female graduates that construction not only presents a viable career path, but that the continued advancement of the industry depends on the participation of more women.
Industry stakeholders should take a leading role in instigating positive change. While a top-down approach in the form of legislation and government initiatives are, of course, a great help, they rarely work in silo. The historic demands of construction roles can be untenable for working mothers especially mandatory onsite attendance and the expectation to work away from the home for long periods.
Simple oversights, including a lack of women’s bathrooms onsite, also reinforce the notion that the sector is not female-friendly. Further, the pandemic has highlighted that many roles can be performed just as well from home. Therefore, it is important that the sector does more to promote flexible working to support mothers, while also making practical changes to the working environment to offer women access to the same facilities afforded to men.
In 2018, we launched a Wellness Works programme within our business to promote and support the well-being of all of our personnel and to help achieve a desirable level of work-life balance. We have also rolled out several initiatives to ensure female lawyers do not drop away as they progress through to senior roles. These include flexible working arrangements and cross-office networking and/or support, among other initiatives.
Additionally, we have a Women’s Initiative Network of Reed Smith, a community dedicated to further enhancing our workplace to develop, reward, engage and attract women lawyers. Initiatives such as these have borne results, helping to create positive change. This has been demonstrated in our firm not least by the fact that half of our senior management positions are held by women.
In recent years, I have seen more women being recognised in UAE construction sector rankings and power lists. However, the sector could do more to drive gender parity and dispel perceptions. The UAE is often cited as a trailblazer. Now could be the time for the country to lead the way by achieving gender balance in a sector that has historically stood for the very opposite.
The UAE presents some of the most exciting opportunities in the world – the sheer scale and size of the projects here are, at times, unprecedented. Having a diverse and balanced workforce that brings the best talent into the sector – regardless of gender is a sure way to further elevate the UAE’s offering.
The onus is not on men, women, the sector, or governments alone to drive change. Everyone must work together. We are committed to playing our part to help all parties to bring solutions to the table and to help firms build an inclusive and supportive legal environment that will enable the UAE’s construction sector to reach its full potential with women as a driving force.