Unbalanced mix: the lack of diversity on the top 20 UK firm’s exec boards


Analysis of the 20 largest construction firms’ boards shows women are still underrepresented and ethnic diversity is woefully lacking. Keith Cooper reports

It’s no secret that construction lags behind many other industries when it comes to the gender and ethnic mix of its workforce. Official employment figures for the first quarter of 2024 show that women comprise just 13.6 per cent of the construction workforce – a post-Covid low. The 2021 census showed that 19.3 per cent of the working age population identify as black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) or ‘other’. But the latest annual survey from the Sustainability Tool shows that people from BAME backgrounds constitute less than 14 per cent of the construction workforce.

“Our executive and board members are expected to be active allies”

Catherine Warbrick, Costain

But what of the people in power in construction – those who steer and shape the industry and its approach to diversity? How mixed are the boardrooms on leading construction firms? And what difference can those with such power make?

To find out, Construction News has examined the boards of the top 20 largest firms by turnover, as listed in our CN100 index. We’ve found what many would suspect: that the ranks of board members in leading construction businesses
are overwhelmingly white and predominantly male. While woman are better represented on boards than construction sites, most of the largest firms are years behind other sectors on key diversity measures.

More striking is the lack of representation of board members from BAME backgrounds. According to the Parker Review, named after Laing O’Rourke chair Sir John Parker, the overwhelming majority of leading UK firms now have at least one ethnic minority director on their boards. But in our analysis, the boards of 13 out of the 20 contractors are all-white and just seven of the 194 board members are from a BAME background. Of the seven, only one identifies as black.

Building a diverse business is widely seen as a sign of strength as well as the right thing to do in a world where investors have a keen eye on the “G” for governance in ESG measures. “Embracing diversity… serves as a catalyst for richer discussions, improved decision-making, fostering top talent and building trust among colleagues, customers and investors,” says chair of the Crown Estate and Lloyds Banking Group Sir Robin Budenberg in the FTSE Women Leaders Review, published in February.

Playing catch-up

Precious Zumbika-Lwanga, founder of construction consultancy Carus Advisory Services, says CN’s analysis shows there is a lot of work to do to increase diversity in the industry. “Construction is inherently immature compared to other industries, where there is more of an intentional drive to bring more diversity onto boards,” she says. “We have had white board members sitting around board tables for centuries and they have been having conversations that have shaped the industry. But particularly now, at a time when innovation and challenge is needed, they need to create avenues for people from minority ethnic backgrounds to sit at those very tables.” (See box below).

Zumbika-Lwanga’s claims about immaturity in construction are borne out by the findings of the FTSE Women Leaders Review and the Parker Review. The latter found that women made up 36.7 per cent of board members on 14 construction and materials firms, one of the lowest levels of representation in the multiple sectors it examined. In contrast, almost 45 per cent of board members in technology firms were women, as were 45.4 per cent of boards in financial services companies and 40.5 per cent of insurance firms.

“After women are promoted a couple of times, the working environment can be quite inflexible”

Jennifer Winyard, Women in Property

Our analysis found an even lower proportion of women on the boards of the 20 largest firms than the two reviews. Just over 28 per cent of the 194 board members in our analysis are women. This level of representation was reached by FTSE100 boards in 2017, according to the FTSE Women Leaders Review. Women made up 42.6 per cent of board members in this group of leading blue chip firms in 2023, it adds. None had all-male boards.

Just one company in our sample has no women on its board: the Winvic Group. M Group and Amey each have only one female board member.

In contrast, 57 per cent of Costain’s seven-strong board is female. The Maidenhead-based firm is one of two of the leading firms with a female chair, Conservative peer Baroness Kate Rock, who is also an ambassador of Women Supporting Women, part of The Prince’s Trust. The other female chair, former BAE systems director Alison Wood, heads up the board of Galliford Try, another firm with an above-average proportion of women on its board with 36 per cent.

Our analysis shows that board members of both genders come from a range of professional backgrounds, including accountancy, the military and the oil industry.

Male board members in our study are more likely to have had a professional career in construction than their female counterparts. The top three professional backgrounds for the men are accountancy, construction and engineering; for the women, they are accountancy, engineering and law. More than half of the male board members have such experience compared with a quarter of their female counterparts.

The boards of big construction firms attract big hitters of both genders, CN’s analysis shows. Amey’s chair Lord Colin Moynihan was a former energy minister under Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Banker Michael Findlay chairs the London Stock Exchange as well as Morgan Sindall. Meanwhile, Balfour Beatty board member and aeronautical engineer Gabrielle Costain’s CV includes 21 years in the Australian Army and two chief executive posts, including most recently at BAE Systems Australia. And Costain board member Amanda Fisher is a former officer in the British Army and ex-chief executive of Amey.

CN July24 Diversity Graph 2

Setting targets

Costain’s chief people officer Catherine Warbrick says her firm places a “genuine emphasis” on increasing diversity. “Our executive and board members are expected to be active allies and visibly champion equality, diversity and inclusion across the business,” she sayss. Costain offers enhanced parental and carer leave, mandates diverse shortlists for senior appointments, and runs a career development programme for women.

Katherine Evans, founder of Bold as Brass, a support group for women working in heavy industries including construction, says women are too often deterred by a construction environment that was created for men. “There have been no real changes made to enable women to survive, let alone grow or thrive,” she adds.

Women working onsite often lack access to basic facilities like clean toilets for changing sanitary products, and sexual harassment is still not handled properly, Evans says. She adds that a lack of provision for the physiological needs of older women means some senior female staff are forced to leave due to the menopause. “And that is the time in their careers when women are going to be moving onto boards,” she says.

Jennifer Winyard, national chair of Women in Property, which has 1,650 members in the UK, says the main stumbling block for women’s progression occurs mid-career. “After women are promoted a couple of times to more senior roles, the working environment can be quite inflexible,” she says. “At this point, women tend not to be able to make the leap because of other things in their personal life. They go part-time but then it’s more difficult to get back into a full-time role.”

“Unfortunately, there will be people from minority ethnic backgrounds who don’t believe they should be sitting around a board table”

Precious Zumbika-Lwanga, Carus Advisory Services

To mitigate this, Women in Property runs mentoring programmes to help women progress
in their careers.

Several firms flagged the work they do to boost diversity, including the use of internal targets. Murphy Group says it helps young black men to work in construction through the Greater London Authority’s Workforce Integration Design Lab and offers paid internships to people with autism.

Laing O’Rourke is aiming for a 50/50 gender split for its global staff by 2033. “In recent years we have actively sought to create a more diverse board under the leadership of our chair, Sir John Parker,” a spokesperson tells CN. “There is plenty of evidence that diversity benefits companies, including by making them more innovative. Construction needs to modernise and boost productivity, and greater diversity can help accelerate the change that is required.” Laing O’Rourke’s Hayaatun Sillem, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering, is one of seven non-white board members out of the 194 that CN examined.

Morgan Sindall Group, which has an above-average 38 per cent of female board members, is working towards several targets. It is aiming for a 40 per cent female board; for one-third of its group management team to be women; and for a woman to occupy at least one senior board role, such as chair, chief executive, senior independent director, or finance director.

Balfour Beatty has the goal of increasing its number of female employees by 50 per cent by 2030. It also has two distinct targets of boosting the number of black employees by 60 per cent, and the number of minority ethnic staff by the same amount. Women will make up 44 per cent of its board after its annual general meeting in May and will this year consider the Parker Review’s recommendations to have ethnic minority representation on boards, in senior management, and in other parts of the business.

Like 65 per cent of the firms in our analysis, Balfour Beatty’s board is completely white. This stands to reason, considering just 4 per cent of the 194 board members in our analysis were from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Such a low level of representation makes construction look out of step with other major UK industries. According to the Parker Review, 96 per cent of FTSE100 firms have at least one ethnic minority board member. This figure drops to 70 per cent for FTSE250 companies.

Morgan Sindall’s Kathy-Ann Quashie is the sole black board member in the 20 leading firms. Appointed in 2021, she has a background in communications and was chief growth officer and executive committee member at outsourcing giant Capita until December 2023.

Costain’s Warbrick agrees it is an issue that there are so few people from non-white backgrounds on the boards of the leading 20 construction firms. Costain began compiling data on its ethnicity pay gap two years ago to help the firm make “more inclusive decisions”.

Zumbika-Lwanga says many other black women could take positions on boards and looks to her white female peers, who have benefited from ongoing gender equality campaigns, to help them progress. But even with such support, she anticipates obstacles in a predominantly white construction industry. “Unfortunately, there will be people from minority ethnic backgrounds who don’t believe they should be sitting around a board table,” she says. “They might be put off by what they know they will face. Having worked in the industry, I know what can happen.”

Bringing grassroots activities into the boardroom

While the construction industry is taking some steps at grassroots level, it is unfortunately inherently immature compared to other industries.

There has been action to break down the barriers facing women for years, with a drive for gender equity and pay parity. But we need to deepen this exercise to capture women from minority ethnic backgrounds if we are to break down those intersectional barriers.

There is a conscious drive for male allyship to support females but what we need now, in addition, is white female allyship to help minority females.

Construction firms need to ask themselves: what are we doing to create platforms and avenues for people from ethnic minority groups to have access to become board members? And are we comfortable to allow that innovation and diversity to happen?

There is still a lot of work to do.

Precious Zumbika-Lwanga is the founder and managing director of construction consultancy Carus Advisory Services



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