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School of Business and Management

How public procurement can promote greater diversity in the construction workforce

an image of construction

Professor Tessa Wright

In a new video made for the Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity’s (CRED’s) video series, I explain why I believe that public procurement can be an effective tool for increasing employment opportunities for groups that are under-represented in the UK construction sector.

Despite numerous equality and diversity initiatives within the construction sector that aim to increase its workforce diversity, the numbers have changed little in recent years. In 2019:

  • Women were only 12.3% of UK construction workforce
  • Building trades only 1-2% women
  • Only 5-7% from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, and 1% or fewer in senior roles

Yet there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the problem isn’t that women or ethnic minorities don’t want to work in construction, but instead the low numbers are a result of traditional and often discriminatory recruitment practices. Additionally, the workplace culture can be unwelcoming to women and minorities, for instance building sites often lacking toilets for women and in day-to-day work harassment is still widespread and tolerated.

But can public sector procurement offer a solution? I believe it can. The UK public sector spends £284bn a year on purchasing (or procuring) goods, works and services from the private sector. There is growing interest from policymakers in using this public spending power to achieve additional social ends – known as social procurement. Social value is an increasingly hot topic among both construction firms and public authorities that are required to consider how the services they commission and procure can improve the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of the local area.

Our current research project, Buying Social Justice through Procurement, is exploring just this question, and will find out what public authorities are doing to ensure that their procurement practices provide benefits to local communities and in particular whether construction opportunities are opening up. Early evidence suggests that social procurement can produce change, especially where the client – or public body in charge of a project – sets ambitious objectives from the start. The construction of London’s Olympic Park and the HS2 rail infrastructure project are just two successful examples. The Olympic Park project included targets for women, BAME and disabled workers in the construction workforce, which contractors were expected to work towards, and provide regular data reports on progress. As a result, the proportion of workers from BAME backgrounds and women was higher than the industry average, and the 15% target for BAME workers was significantly exceeded, reaching 24% (Thrush and Martins 2011). The HS2 project implemented a strategy of ‘inclusive procurement’ requiring companies in its supply chain to meet agreed workforce diversity objectives, monitored through extensive data reporting. This has proved successful, and HS2’s supply chain now includes 28% women and 18% BAME workers, well above the engineering industry averages of 16.5% for women and 8% for the BAME workforce (HS2, 2022). Our research project aims to uncover further examples of good practice across England, Wales and Scotland.

Buying Social Justice through Procurement is a two-year research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, led by myself at Queen Mary, working with project researcher Dr Joyce Mamode and Co-Investigators Professor Hazel Conley, University of the West of England, and Dr Katharina Sarter, University of Warwick. The project is using several methods of data collection:

  • Expert interviews with key experts in the practice of social procurement, including representatives of commissioning and contracting organisations and procurement, equality, and civil society bodies.
  • Survey of procurement practitioners in local authorities, housing associations and higher education institutions to establish the extent of the inclusion of employment equality objectives within public procurement, as well as the outcomes, in England, Wales and Scotland.
  • Case studies of good practice in the inclusion of employment equality objectives in public procurement, identifying the factors that enable outcomes, as well as the barriers to overcome.

The findings of the research will be presented to practitioners and academic experts to form the basis of recommendations for the sector, and will feed into a toolkit on how to include equality and diversity in procurement.

The construction sector is experiencing significant skills and labour shortages, combined with urgent demands to meet net zero carbon targets, so I believe that there has never been a better time to grasp the opportunities presented by social procurement to finally change the construction sector for good.

To keep up with the progress of the research, visit the Buying Social Justice project website and sign up to the mailing list, and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Watch the video here: Can public procurement be used to advance employment equality in construction?

Other CRED videos can be found on the CRED YouTube channel.


HS2 (2022). ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Annual Report 2021– 2022’. Birmingham: High Speed Two (HS2) Limited.

Thrush, Camilla, and Loraine Martins (2011). ‘Lessons Learned from the London 2012 Games Construction Project: Targeted Approaches to Equality and Inclusion’. London: Olympic Delivery Authority.



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