Construction is currently one of Australia’s top job-generating industries hiring more than a million people. However, it is also reported to be the country’s second most male-dominated industry – behind mining.
Female participation sits at just 18% of the total workforce, but within trade roles the figure is just 2%. At the other end of the scale, women make up just 15% of top management roles, 11% of director roles and 3% of CEOs.
According to UNSW’s Demolishing Gender Structures report, women are leaving construction professions almost 39% faster than their male colleagues. So what is stopping women from pursuing long-term careers in construction and how can we work towards building and maintaining a more diverse workforce?
The Challenges Facing Women in the Construction Industry
The barriers women face in the construction industry fall into two categories – cultural and structural.
From a workplace culture standpoint, construction and other male-dominated industries are often very ‘macho’ or ‘blokey’, which can make women feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. Sexual harassment takes on many forms including leering and staring, using offensive language and inappropriate touching. This can lead to women feeling like their privacy has been invaded, as well as being treated differently to their male co-workers. A recent interview on ABC radio cited examples of construction sites without female toilets, or showers that didn’t lock and women didn’t feel safe to use.
Another problem is one of social exclusion – where male workers avoid interacting with their female colleagues personally and professionally. Examples include not inviting women to social occasions like lunches or drinks after work, making sexist jokes or sharing inappropriate photos and expecting women to do administrative tasks regardless of their roles. All of this culminates in the creation of a “boys club” work environment.
We asked our Brand Ambassador, Tallisha Harden, if she’d ever experienced social exclusion in her sporting career.
“I remember attending a formal sporting event when I was in my early 20s. The event was largely male-dominated and I found it very challenging to join in on conversations. I would make eye contact and smile at different people to generate some sort of response with no luck. I also couldn’t seem to find an ‘in’ conversational topic. I definitely felt out of place,” she said.
Structural barriers for women are no less significant. They include a lack of job flexibility, little or no career progression, significantly lower levels of pay compared to men for the same roles and a lack of commitment from leadership teams for improving gender diversity and equality.
Bias against women in the recruitment process is also both a structural and cultural issue in many construction businesses. Research for the Victorian Government’s Women in Construction Strategy identified a raft of obstacles for female candidates, including employers hiring through informal networks that ‘women do not have ready access to’ and using a metric of ‘cultural fit’ when hiring workers, which often excludes women.
The research also found most male workers are hired via informal recruitment processes, while most women workers are hired using formal processes. And that hiring managers are reluctant to offer roles to women ‘based on the belief that construction work is too difficult for women or that they will require parental leave’.
Tallisha has experienced firsthand what’s it’s like when women accomplish things that men don’t expect them to be able to do.
“I broke down on the side of the road with a flat tyre when I had just got my red p-plates. A lovely middle aged gentleman pulled over to help me. He honestly couldn’t believe that I had already managed to change the tyre by myself. I’m not sure if this shock was because of my age or my gender, but he was definitely impressed!,” she said.
“Sometimes this kind of stereotype is not malicious, but it does show what men sometimes think about women’s capabilities – especially with more physical tasks’.
How To Make the Workplace Fair for Women
While it seems there is a long way to go, there is certainly light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to gender diversity in the construction industry. As with the barriers and issues, it comes down to changing social/cultural norms and implementing structural pathways that encourage women to succeed.
• Using gender neutral language onsite
• Calling out discriminatory language or offensive behaviour
• Role modelling positive behaviour and identifying as an ally
• Ensuring worksites are set up for female workers, e.g. toilets and showers
• Offering flexible work arrangements and parental leave entitlements
• Implementing zero-tolerance sexual harassment and discrimination policies
• Regularly reviewing salaries to close the pay gap
• Unibased recruitment, reward and recognition processes
• Creating opportunities for mentorship and networking for women in construction
• Setting quotas across all levels to create a more diverse workforce
The benefits of a diverse workforce have been proven time and time again, with examples stretching from increased productivity and communication, to improvements in the bottom line. Within construction specifically, there’s an opportunity to challenge the “old boys club” mentality and look to the future for ways to deliver new, innovative ways of working.
Thankfully, the tide is slowly turning, and more women are enrolling in construction and trades courses, while organisations such as The National Association for Women in Construction (NAWIC) are delivering new approaches to encourage high school-aged girls to pursue a path in the industry.
To Tallisha, the future is bright and there are many opportunities for everyone to make a difference.
“I’m really excited for what the future holds, and look forward to the day when we don’t talk about ‘gaps’ and ‘inequality’. We’ve got a long way to go in a few different industries – sport in particular – but we are slowly getting there,” she said.
Improving gender diversity in construction requires a shift in attitudes, assumptions and bias based on stereotypes. Such a shift would be part of a widespread and long-term campaign to affect social and workplace culture, with the support of employers, managers and the entire workforce.
An Indigenous-owned construction company, Kennelly Constructions is committed to making Australian workplaces more diverse and equitable for women and other marginalised groups. We pride ourselves on giving back to the communities we work with and strive to make Australian work sites excellent places to work. To find out how we can help with your next project, contact our team.