Opportunity from uncertainty: a new deal for women in construction through Brexit

Opportunity from uncertainty: a new deal for women in construction through Brexit

There has been a plethora of commentary on the UK’s monumental decision to leave the European Union, and the exit process itself. I have also deliberated what Brexit will mean for the construction sector and for women across the UK – especially the opportunities it could bring to them both.

At Swan Housing Association, which I chair, we are passionate about providing quality homes. The Brexit vote has led to uncertainty for the sector, but it may also lead to opportunities for us.

The outcome has already contributed to our ability raise money, as within a few weeks of the vote we were able to raise funds in the Bond market at a very competitive rate.  

So, from that uncertainty came the opportunity to contribute more to meeting the housing challenges in London and the South East, our area of focus.

I also wondered if perhaps more long term opportunities might be opened up for women as a result of Brexit having seen data the Chartered Institute of Builders published recently showed that just under 10 per cent of construction workers were born outside the British Isles.

Contrary perhaps to much of the reporting on the impact of migrant workers, the impact of Brexit on the construction sector might not be felt significantly through a shortage of labour. 

Data also suggests that only 11 per cent of the entire construction workforce are female (this figure includes many who work behind a desk, often in design, management or other roles).

On building sites it is estimated that 99 per cent of workers are male. It strikes me that any labour impact might be mitigated by welcoming more women into construction.

At Swan we have our own in house construction company, NU living, and take part in a variety of activities designed to encourage more girls and women into the sector.  

We support Twitter campaigns such as #notjustforboys and #constructionrolemodel and I recently gave a speech at a Chicks with Bricks event to promote the fantastic opportunities available to women in the construction industry.

Through our charity, Swan Foundation, we have funded various “Get into Construction” programmes over the last few years which have encouraged young people to consider the wide variety of careers available in construction. Young women have taken an active part in these programmes.

Back in August we launched our Construction Trades School in Tower Hamlets offering young people a taster of a variety of trades.

Sadly, experience tells us that many young women will not even consider these careers despite the fact that long term earnings would probably far exceed those in other more “typically” female dominated sectors. 

Whilst we are thinking about women in the workplace and the EU, my experience would suggest that any moves to reduce women’s rights in the UK would be enormously unpopular and counterproductive. 

Good employers have moved on to offer more than the statutory minimums. At Swan, for example we have embraced the the move to flexible working, with 80 per cent of the flexible working requests received being approved – most but not all these requests were made by women. 

Satisfaction levels of our staff have risen concurrently and our data confirms that this flexibility for men and women is a factor in staff engagement. 


May and Merkel are the two most important figures in the Brexit negotiations

So, although when the votes were in, women were less keen on leaving the EU and around 80 per cent of women aged 18-24 voted to stay, there maybe opportunities out there for us to support these young women to take the opportunities that Brexit may present.

I’m hopeful that, with the two biggest decision makers in the exit process being women (Theresa May and Angela Merkel), we’ll get less talking and more listening and take the opportunity to make a new deal for Europe, Housing and women.



About the author

Valerie Owen is chair at Swan Housing. An expert in economic and sustainable development, she is a multi-disciplinary property professional – a Chartered Architect, Chartered Town Planner and Chartered Surveyor. Prior to setting up Le Vaillant Owen Consultancy, Valerie was Managing Director of London First, delivering economic development programmes in Sustainable Development, Housing, Regeneration, Health, Sector Development & Business retention in collaboration with national and regional governments.


  • Carolyn Mann

    I worked in the construction industry for 10 years and enjoyed it immensely. If I had thought it would have been possible to go into this industry when I left school in 1977 I would have jumped at the chance.Colleges should start plugging courses in construction to our girls. We csn do the job as well and sometimes better.

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