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Breaking gender bias in construction – Business Daily

New buildings are coming up in Kenya’s urban areas every other week, as investors seek a piece of the commercial real estate pie and individuals a rent-free place to call home.
The construction industry contributed 5.6 percent to GDP in 2019 and provided employment to almost 222,000 people in Kenya. National government projects such as the Nairobi Expressway and others across the country continue to provide employment.
Indeed, infrastructure and affordable housing are part of the Big 4 Agenda. The industry seems to be defying the impact of Covid-19 as the demand for low-cost housing, residential, commercial, and industrial buildings continue to grow.
Construction is a traditionally male-dominated sector due to its perceived demand of physical strength and other risks. This inevitably means that the work spaces are by default designed to suit men. We have seen increased interest in the sector by women who continue to challenges the narrative that construction is a man’s job.
However, this has not been without difficulties. Female construction workers continue to suffer various barriers to entry, which probably end up discouraging a lot of them. In Kenya, statistics from the Engineers Board of Kenya show that females account for only 10.6 percent of engineering graduates.
Only 15.4 percent of registered contractors in Kenya are women and out of 17,119 contractors registered by the National Construction Authority as at November, 2019, only 2,645 were female.
A study by Dalberg the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and BuildHer on Advancing Women’s Participation in Kenya’s Construction Industry revealed that the bias against women in construction begins right from recruitment. The physical demands of the job are often used as an excuse to limit women’s participation, where heavy lifting and shoving is involved.
However, it is important to note that the construction industry has many different facets to it that women can explore; operating machines such as earth movers, excavators, compaction rollers, road graders, project vehicles and tipper trucks among others.
Other than machinery women can be enlisted into project management, supervisory roles, surveying and interior décor, among others. The industry is broad enough to accommodate at least two thirds of women and must normalise gender inclusivity.
In fact, diversity of thought can help the construction companies innovate and find solutions to challenges they may have otherwise missed out on. A handful of women have been spotted along the Nairobi Expressway operating heavy machines, surveying and supervising work, a sign that things are slowly changing.
The study found that it is assumed that women looking for especially unskilled jobs in construction are desperate and have failed to find work elsewhere. These women face consistent sexual harassment at construction sites, unwanted sexual advances, lewd comments, coercion and sometimes face punishment for rejecting such advances.
The need to retain an income in such a male-dominated environment, drives many affected women to give in to such advances. One respondent at a site reported that she was allocated duty to carry cement up to the top floor of a building for shutting down her supervisors’ sexual advances.
One would ask why they don’t report? Due to a limited number of women in the construction sites, the female worker is ostracised when a report is made and may lead to dismissal. Others are overworked until they quit.
There are limited mechanisms to protect and support women from sexual harassment. Based on the study and its emerging findings, most of them end up managing the harassment on their own. This calls for an urgent and radical formulation of a system to police and protect every female worker on construction sites.
A glaring anomaly was revealed in the lack of gender-exclusive facilities where restrooms or toilets do not accommodate the unique needs of the women. A majority are makeshift structures that have no lockable doors, soap and running water, which is made worse during menstruation.
Collaboration is key to creating a conversation towards finding effective solutions to these very pertinent issues affecting women in this sector.
Government institutions, donor organisations, sector associations, foreign and local construction companies, employers, employees, amongst other stakeholders must make their contribution and play their role in addressing these issues.
The writer is an Associate Partner at Dalberg Advisors

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