Women in construction: a brief history
With thousands of new homes to be built each year, not to mention future commercial projects, construction industry leaders know they must attract as many people as possible into construction careers.
For too long the industry was considered to be more suited to men, but this has changed, and continues to develop, with construction becoming a suitable industry for anyone to work in.
In this article, we take a brief look at how these changes came about and share inspiring stories of the women working in constriction today.
Why do we need women in construction?
We need more women in construction to reflect the society we live in. Women use the spaces, so they should be building them too. 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 female architects
Lady Anne Clifford
The first woman recorded in British history to lead building projects was Lady Anne Clifford (1590–1676). With incredible grit and tenacity, Clifford spent much of her life fighting a protracted legal battle to win back her sizeable family estates, left to her uncle by her father in 1605. After 44 years, she finally took possession of them and embarked on a significant programme of improvements and enlargements. This included churches and five castles in Yorkshire and Cumbria. When Clifford died, she was one of the wealthiest women in the country.
Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham
The aristocrat Elizabeth, Lady Wilbraham (1632-1705) was the first woman architect who drew up her own designs. She designed grand houses for her family, such as Weston Park in Staffordshire. According to one theory, Wilbraham may have been involved in up to 400 other buildings, including 18 London churches which are officially attributed to Christopher Wren as at the time, women couldn’t hold professional roles. Elizabeth possibly resorted to using male architects to carry out her plans for her. Wren may have been one of these, and may even 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 female member of RIBA. Ethel’s designs are now regarded as a significant development of the Old English style towards the garden city movement, a method of urban planning that surrounded communities with greenbelt land. Examples of this can be seen in Brentham Garden Suburb and Welwyn Garden City.
Women and building design
Despite the profession long being inaccessible 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. These ideas were adopted in 1868 at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, where Nightingale later set up the world’s first professional nursing school, for the hospital’s new ‘pavilion’ buildings. Her innovations subsequently became popularised in hospitals throughout the world.
A more equal society
As women won greater freedoms and independence, they had to change the built environment for their needs. However, it was difficult for the early feminists and suffragists to even 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.
Today you will find societies like the National Association of Women in Construction, supporting women across every role in the industry.
The history of women in education
Ordinary women were largely excluded from formal education until 1870, when all children between 5 and 12 were supposed to be provided with schooling. Until 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 as 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, Buss 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.
How women helped improve 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.
Hill 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, often transforming 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’.
Hill 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 were considered essential by Hill 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.
Stories from women working in construction
Thankfully, these days there are plenty more women involved in construction, many with inspiring stories and varied career paths. Click any of the names below to learn more about their role and how they got there.
Brianne Asbury took on trainee designer role, while Amy Griffiths works as an assistant site manager for Kier Construction.
After completing her A levels, Jaeger Petry, who had considered going to university, gave a few weeks’ plant operator work experience a go and has never looked back! Sonia Jamieson is an HSQE manager, and works to engage with apprentices to help develop the workforce of the future.
Find out more about roles for women in construction
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 must continue, and there has never been a better time for women to get into the industry.
Find out about women in construction, plus the huge range of construction roles and career opportunities there are in the sector with our Career Explorer, which bases recommendations on your skills and personality.
You can also subscribe to magazines (available online too) such as Women in Construction to keep up-to-date with the latest developments.