We need more women in construction. With 300,000 new homes to be built each year and more than a million extra workers required by 2020, industry leaders know they must attract as many women as possible into construction careers.

Recent progress has been good. Women are expected to make more than a quarter of the construction workforce by 2020, up from its current level of about 14%. Wages are rising for female construction workers too, and the proportion of women in senior roles has nearly trebled since 2005.

If experts are right that women could soon make up half of the new workforce, then it must be hailed as a major milestone in a long history in which women have had to fight inch by inch for recognition and equality in every role – not only as designers, architects, engineers and construction workers, but also as users of spaces, buildings, institutions and the built environment itself.

Pioneering women architects

It’s telling that the first woman recorded in British history to lead building projects, Lady Anne Clifford (1590–1676), showed incredible grit and tenacity to get what was rightfully hers.

She spent much of her life stubbornly fighting a protracted legal battle to win back her sizeable family estates, willed to her uncle by her father on his death in 1605. After 44 years, she finally took possession of them and embarked on a significant programme of improvements and enlargement to churches and her five castles in Yorkshire and Cumbria.

But the first woman architect who drew up her own designs is thought to be the aristocrat Elizabeth, Lady Wilbraham (1632-1705). She designed grand houses for her family, such as Weston Park in Staffordshire, and according to one theory may have had her hand in up to 400 other buildings, including 18 London churches which are officially attributed to Christopher Wren.

As women couldn’t hold professional roles then, she probably resorted to using male architects to carry out her plans for her on site – Wren may have been one of these, and may have developed many of his later ideas drawing on her influence.

It wasn’t until 1898 that the first woman architect gained full professional recognition, when Ethel Charles (1871–1962) was admitted to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). However, this didn’t mean that she was given any commissions for big projects, which were still controlled by men.

Instead she worked on improving labourer’s cottages, usually with her sister Bessie, who was the second ever female member of RIBA. Her designs are now regarded as a significant development of the Old English style towards the garden city movement.

Better buildings and spaces

Despite the profession long being closed off to them, women succeeded in making important improvements in the way our buildings and public spaces are designed and used.

For example, the views of Florence Nightingale (1820–1910), who revolutionised nursing and set new standards for compassion in patient care, led to new thinking about hospital layout.

She called for better light and ventilation, and ward organisation to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, ideas directly adopted in 1868 at St Thomas’ Hospital in London (where she set up the world’s first professional nursing school) for its new ‘pavilion’ buildings, and subsequently popularised in hospitals throughout the world.

A more equal society

As women won greater freedom and independence, they had to change the built environment for their needs.

It was difficult for the early feminists and suffragists even to find safe places to meet. As campaigner Ray Strachey (1887–1940) later said, “the very existence of a committee of women was a startling novelty”. They had to organise campaigns and protests from private homes.

Donations from benefactors allowed women to associate, form societies and create institutions, such as the London and National Society for Women’s Service, which eventually had resources to commission its own building in Westminster, the Millicent Fawcett Hall, named after its leader. Its library became the basis for today’s Women’s Library, now housed at the London School of Economics.

Schools and universities

Ordinary women were largely excluded from formal education until 1870, when all children between 5 and 12 were supposed to be provided with schooling. Up to then, it was down to philanthropists like Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), who supported the building of hundreds of Ragged Schools, intended for the poorest children.

Prevailing opinion was that girls were not suited to education and exercise as boys were. Educationalists such as Frances Mary Buss (1827–1894) set out to correct this, opening a secondary school for girls in London in 1850, which became North London Collegiate School and the model for many others that followed. A formidable intellectual force, she coined the term ‘headmistress’ and was the first female fellow of what is now the Chartered College of Teaching.

It took even longer for women to get places at university. Reformers Emily Davies (1830-1921) and Barbara Bodichon (1827–1891) pushed for women to be able to sit exams and gain degrees. In 1869 they established a new college in imposing Victorian red-brick style on the outskirts of Cambridge, one of England’s first residential colleges for women. It became Girton College – but didn’t officially become part of Cambridge University until women were fully admitted to the university in 1948.

Out and about

With greater freedom and more disposable income, well-to-do women could increasingly venture from the domestic sphere into public – and flex their economic muscles in the new department stores and haberdashers sprouting up in towns and cities. This came hand in hand with an expanded infrastructure – public transport to move them and places to eat and drink.

Tearooms were specifically aimed at a female clientele, replicating the intimacy and comforts of home in socially respectable spaces where they could meet without a male chaperone. By the end of the 19th century there were many hundreds of them across the country.

But where could they go if they were caught short in public? For early feminists, the provision of better public toilet facilities was almost as important as attaining the vote, with the Ladies’ Sanitary Association campaigning hard from the 1850s onwards.

Victorian squeamishness about women’s bodies proved difficult to overcome – but the one advantage was that most people considered lavatory facilities as a stunning technological innovation of the modern age and were in favour of building more. So it was that in 1884 the Ladies’ Lavatory Company opened its first public convenience for women at Oxford Circus.

Improving housing

Britain’s cities would be far worse off, had it not been for fearless social reformers and campaigners, such as Octavia Hill (1838–1912), who helped found the National Trust. Hill had seen that municipal social housing programmes were failing to save the urban poor from atrocious living conditions and ruthless landlords.

She developed a system whereby wealthy investors would help her buy simple housing for the poor in return for a 5% return on their investment. This meant that her new tenants had to pay rent, so they had to transform their lives to ensure they could afford it. Her army of volunteers helped them make repairs, find work, learn new skills and generally improve their lot.

She had no doubts about women’s role in this. “Ladies must do it, for it is detailed work; ladies must do it, for it is household work; it needs, moreover, persistent patience, gentleness, hope,” she said.

Open spaces, gardens, trees and flowers she considered essential for what we now know as “quality of life”. She successfully campaigned to keep Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields – now among London’s most cherished green spaces – free from development; and in place of the cheerless, treeless housing tenements, she created garden cottages in the city as hubs for a healthy community.

Garden cities and beyond

Hill’s influence was later seen in the garden city movement, not least through Henrietta Barnett (1851–1936), who had once worked for her and helped plan Hampstead Garden Suburb in 1904.

Others followed, such as Mary Higgs (1854–1937), who went dressed undercover to understand the issues facing vagrant women, and created gardens, better public spaces and women’s lodging houses in Oldham; and Elizabeth Scott, who cut her teeth on Welwyn Garden City before she designed the award-winning Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1926.

Scott’s assistant Judith Ledeboer (1901–1990) sat on an influential housing committee after the Second World War, advising local authorities on the reconstruction of Britain. In fact, women like Ledeboer and modernist Jane Dew (1911–1996) took crucial roles in the rebuilding of post-war Britain, in the creation of new towns such as Hemel Hempstead and Harlow, driving for homes and council houses with more space and better storage.

Get involved

The story of women in construction is one that shows that fighting for a better, more equal society can make deep and lasting improvements to our built environment – and the society it serves.

This needs to continue – and there has never been a better time for women to get into the industry.

Find out about the huge range of construction roles and career opportunities there are in the sector with our Career Explorer or take our personality quiz to get a better idea of what would suit you.