Bridging the gender PPE gap: why ill-fitting workwear is hampering equality

Posted on: 26 February, 2024

A shortage of appropriate workplace equipment and clothing won’t just make female workers uncomfortable – it puts their safety at risk, too.

While the perception of construction and the built environment as a male-oriented profession remains, efforts are being made to change this. Through outreach to young pupils and the championing of role models in the sector, awareness of the built environment is growing among under-represented groups, and more and more women are entering industries like construction and quantity surveying.

Progress, however, is slow. Just 15.8% of the construction workforce are female, as of October 2023. And with the Construction Industry Training Board’s (CITB) Construction Skills Network research forecasting the creation of 168,500 in the last four years, there’s a very real need to encourage more women to enter the sector to help combat growing skills gaps.

However, for women that do decide to pursue a career in the built environment, the challenges don’t end once they land their first career role. Along with issues like sexism, harassment and discrimination, a lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) designed for women is holding back progress on gender equality in the sector.

The gender PPE gap – why does it exist?

Gender bias in PPE is not a new issue, nor is the built environment the only sector failing to cater to its female workforce. In healthcare, for instance – where women make up around 70% of all workers – a survey of almost a thousand women found that many lacked access to adequate PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research into the provision of PPE in the construction industry presents a similarly worrying picture, as less than a third (29%) of women surveyed in a Trade Union Congress report claimed to have been provided with PPE designed specifically for women.

As a historically male-oriented profession, it’s unfortunately not a surprise that the built environment is falling short in this regard. This, however, doesn’t mean PPE designed specifically for women should be a revelatory concept. What’s more, women aren’t just ‘scaled down men’ – they differ in size, shape and features, and with more and more women entering the workforce in the coming years, our sector needs to ensure they’re provided with adequate equipment.

Why PPE for women matters

Here are several reasons why it’s important for businesses to provide PPE that takes into account gender differences:

A question of safety

The biggest issue with gender-bias in PPE is the impact it could have on women’s safety. Construction sites are notoriously hazardous environments filled with potential risks, from working at height to handling dangerous equipment, working in poor weather conditions and being close to heavy machinery. These dangers could be magnified by having ill-fitting or even inappropriate equipment on site.

For example, protective gloves designed to protect a worker’s hands while operating machinery could in fact create greater risk if they’re the wrong size for the wearer. Similarly, protective trousers can do more harm than good if the wearer ends up tripping over them as they’re too long or ill-fitting.

Feeling comfortable

As Sophie Perkins wrote in a journal for the RICS, “when I began my career at the age of 18 I didn’t have PPE that would be suitable for me as a woman, and it made me feel as though I didn’t fit in.”

Feeling physically comfortable is not a trivial issue, as ill-fitting equipment can seriously hamper workplace performance. A survey conducted by TUC found that 57% of the women surveyed stated that PPE ‘sometimes or significantly’ impacted their work. For example, women that are forced to wear men’s boots on construction sites often find that, due to the design, they end up with blisters and twisted ankles.

If women find the PPE equipment provided unsuitable or uncomfortable, they may opt to not use it together (especially if they’re working on multiple projects with a scarcity of PPE and different risks/requirements), placing them at enormous physical risk.

Greater diversity

The above points and the question of women’s PPE in general fall into the issue of diversity – a topic the built environment is working hard to address but still has ground to cover.

From gender to ethnicity, social background and class, the built environment (and particularly construction) has room for improvement in terms of representation. Along with addressing sexism, clamping down on discrimination and promoting equal opportunities for all, ensuring women have adequate PPE is another way to foster diversity in the sector, which can be of great benefit to employers.

Learn more: Giving the construction industry a second chance – a Q&A with UCEM Apprentice Jodi-Ann Morgan

Fostering inclusivity

PPE doesn’t need to just be designed for women – it also needs to be offered in different variations, from size to fit and type. The shortage of appropriate PPE is exacerbated during pregnancy, for instance, meaning women in this position are forced to either change their role and duties or even stop wearing PPE altogether.

The built environment also has a responsibility to ensure that it provides adequate working conditions and equipment from different cultural and religious backgrounds. In Islam, for instance, certain items of PPE, while available for women, don’t conform to rules around modesty codes and make wearing items like hijabs difficult.

What is the law on PPE (and what’s being done to change it)?

There are laws around the provision of PPE. As of the time of writing, current regulations in the UK require employers to provide adequate equipment to employees that take on board health and safety risks and fit the wearer correctly. However, there’s no mention of gender.

Campaigners are at work to get this law changed so that employers are required to address the ‘specific needs’ of their female workers. SHP recently announced Protection for Everyone – a campaign aiming to raise awareness around the impact of ill-fitting workwear, which they plan to pitch to the UK government. Similarly, institutions and organisations like the Considerate Constructors Scheme (CCS) have added gender-differentiated PPE to its contractor checklist, meaning that companies opting in for the CCS code of practice have to ensure adequate PPE is available for women.

How to assess your PPE equipment

If your business or your employer operates on construction sites and provides PPE to its workers, here’s how to address the suitability of your equipment:

1. What are the requirements of the job and what demands are placed on the wearer?

Beyond gender, PPE should be tailored to specific roles, responsibilities and environments – for instance, the equipment provided for a construction site to ensure safety may not be the same as that needed in a factory. When assessing these factors, what impact does gender have on the suitability of the equipment?

2. Does the equipment increase the overall level of risk or add new risks?

Following on from the above, how can gender impact the suitability of the equipment provided? For instance, do incorrectly-sized hardhats negate the protection they’re intended to provide, or do ill-fitting gloves actually create new health and safety risks?

3. Can the equipment be adjusted to fit the user comfortably and correctly?

This is a crucial point that all business should consider. While unisex and adjustable clothing has often been touted as a solution, if it can’t be adequately adjusted to fit the user comfortably, it’s not going to provide adequate protection. For instance, rolling up sleeves might make protective jacket fit more closely, but the item can still be uncomfortable, cumbersome and potentially dangerous for the wearer.

4. Is the item compatible with other equipment?

It’s quite often the case that workers have to wear multiple items of PPE at the same time, for instance a hardhat alongside a high-visibility jacket, protective trousers and protective boots. With this in mind, it’s important to ensure gender-differentiated PPE can be worn at the same time as other items.

If your PPE falls foul of any of the above assessment, here are a few ways to address the problem:

  • Avoid suppliers that don’t provide a range of sizes for both men and women, or put pressure on manufacturers to make sure they do
  • Request women try on several different sizes/types of PPE to find the best fit
  • Ensure women have the opportunity to provide feedback on your PPE
  • Collaborate with health and safety representatives to assess the suitability of your PPE

Final thoughts

PPE is just one of the many challenges facing women in the built environment, but unlike other issues embedded within our culture, it’s one that’s relatively straightforward to solve. And as the sector attracts more and more women to its many roles and industries, it’s a challenge we need to address sooner rather than later.