Recent events in the USA have highlighted some of the issues regarding diversity and racial prejudice. It’s a heated debate for sure, but what does it have to do with construction?

Statistics from a 2014 survey indicate that the percentage of black people and minority groups in the UK’s general workforce is only 10%. In construction it’s 5.7%.

Now while these figures may have increased in recent years, and efforts have been made to hire more women into senior roles, the fact remains that 97% of those entering the industry as apprentices are white males. It’s time for diversity to go beyond rhetoric.

Unconscious bias

Industry leaders that have made it a priority to tackle the diversity issue say the one thing that makes a huge difference is workshops on unconscious bias. If you’re one of the people that’s wondering what the big deal is about diversity then you’d be a good candidate for one of those workshops. When you work in an environment void of diversity it entrenches beliefs about what people have the capability to fulfill what roles.

Management styles and systems are set up to support these beliefs. Women, for example, will only apply for a construction management role if they meet 90% of the criteria. Whereas men will apply even if they only meet 70% of the qualifying criteria. This reflects that even women feel they have to work harder to achieve the same level of recognition. Unconscious bias is more entrenched than most people believe.

Economics of diversity

Now while many will agree that diversity is something that needs to be addressed because it is the right thing to do, it is actually not an HR issue, it’s a business driver from both a business development and productivity point of view.

Following in the footsteps of technology, diversity could become a criteria for new tenders. Clients financing major infrastructure projects, and who have robust diversity structures in place, are looking to work with businesses that have similar priorities when it comes to diversity. HS2, for example, admits they have a long way to go, to match Lloyds Banking Group, who pledged to have 40% of senior roles filled by women by 2020.

But beyond that, there is ample research that supports the view that diverse teams are more creative, more innovative and more productive. Given current economic challenges, the construction industry could do with more of those key elements if it is to make a more effective recovery.