The experience of a black woman in construction? Discrimination is about age.

News & Updates

January 18, 2020

She’s the only woman in her engineering department and the only black person. And while she feels the absence of female or black role models in the industry, it’s not race or gender which holds her back, it’s her age.

The construction industry has been referred to as an ‘old boys club’ from time to time, but forgive me, I always thought the emphasis was on boys. It turns out, the experience of this early 30-year-old is that she doesn’t apply for more senior positions as she doesn’t think she stands a chance.

My own experience recruiting for contracting businesses for the last couple of decades echoes her sentiment. The industry is not fixated on age per se, it’s more about years’ experience. I can recall a customer requesting candidates with 10 years’ experience in Project Management – when I slightly flippantly confirmed back to him that I should rule out those with 9 years’ experience, I was rather taken aback when he said, yes. The contracting industry is often apprehensive in entrusting senior level roles to those on the wrong side of 50 (who knew the wrong side was below it) and it’s a reluctance that is harming the industry.

The Modernise or Die report by Mark Farmer in 2016 highlighted several ways in which the industry had stalled, including a lack of innovation. Perhaps some of the innovation the industry seeks could lie in the disruption of traditional promotion and hiring assessments and disrupting this preoccupation with age.

Construction is gradually embracing a new age of technology, sustainable building and off-site construction but given the industry will lose 20-25% of its workforce in the next decade, we must appreciate the skills of the newer generation of construction and stop thinking of age and years’ experience as the demarcation of how capable someone is.

In construction, there’s enormous value placed on managers from a trade background, who have physically done the manual work in their field before moving into management. It is felt, the time spent on-site provides significant value to the employer and project, and this is certainly true. However, my interviewee’s contention is that while she may be less able to identify issues on site by physically looking at them, she can assess and prevent issues with her engineering, technology proficiency, methodical planning and organisational skills. In an industry that must gravitate towards more off-site construction, modern building solutions and collaboration between all parties, aren’t these skills of significant value?

I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I do know that a proclivity for ‘doing what we’ve always done’ and sticking to customary hiring and promoting inertia is stifling industry, careers and ultimately the economy.

While much focus rightly revolves around diversification of the industry in race, ethnicity and gender, there’s a need to ensure that age demographic is included too.