Here in the UK, when schoolchildren turn 14 they are expected to make an educational decision that could shape their future careers and even lives. They are required to select which lessons and classes they wish to pursue; and which they wish to abandon for their final years in high school. This is known colloquially as “taking your options”.
For me, the priority was those I wanted to drop: French and Religious Studies. I was terrible at the first and could see no point in the second. But even then, I knew I was not destined for a life of any kind of manual labour, a point that my options made patently clear. I selected business studies, accounting, commerce and typing classes.
I distinctly recall telling my peers in the school football team that I was taking typing. “Typing? You and 29 girls,” they mocked until the hormones coursing through their systems cleared their brains. “Wait! You and 29 girls?”
My father was harder to convince. Although he never said as much, I am sure he saw my selection of typing classes as a coded way of informing him I preferred the company of men (not true then, not true now). This, however, was one of those rare instances in which I was right and my father was wrong as I have spent my entire working life bashing a keyboard of one kind or another.
I was reminded of this not once but twice this past week; both times while speaking with a building contractor based in the Midlands: the first time on the highly addictive Clubhouse social media platform; the second during The Construction Collective live show. We were discussing the general lack of women in the combined demolition and construction sectors.
Now over the years, I have had this gender imbalance explained to me in countless ways: The industry is too macho for women; women can’t lift stuff; women have no suitable role models; and, my personal favourite (which suggests that a woman’s fertility is somehow triggered by permanent employment) – there’s no point in employing and training women because they just go and get pregnant.
However, my Midlands building buddy Matt Dunleavy, believes the real problem lies closer to home. In fact, he believes it lies WITHIN the home. He says that parents still insist that construction and demolition are pursuits for men while office-based and clerical careers are for women. He should know. His mother encouraged him to “get a trade” while his sister was pushed towards a career in the legal profession.
Dunleavy, however, has other ideas. He is father to five children, three of them girls. And they are all being taught every aspect of his business, from the office-based and administrative functions to laying bricks in the pouring rain.
Yet the stereotypes remain. The phrase “he followed in his father’s footsteps” has a nice, tidy sound to it. “SHE followed in HER father’s footsteps” feels wrong in the mouth; like an egg sandwich containing a stray grain of eggshell.
Until that is overcome, we can have all the initiatives, working parties, training courses, seminars and role models you could possibly hope for. But that gender imbalance will remain.
All of which begs a question. If your daughter, granddaughter or niece expressed a desire to pursue a career in demolition or construction, what would YOUR advice be?
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