Advancing gender equality in construction

Construction is one of Australia’s biggest industries, employing 8.7 per cent of the total Australian workforce and contributing around nine per cent of the GDP [1] – yet out of the significant population the industry employs, only 13 per cent of the workforce are women. The industry is enjoying robust growth, 7.3 per cent over the past five years, and this is putting further pressure on the need for talent in a market that is predicted to be short more than 100,000 workers. Women represent a hugely underutilised talent pool for this industry, yet more work needs to be done to encourage more women into the industry.
“While there are pockets of amazing work being done, change is slow, and as soon as you stop to take a breath, you’re already two steps back again. It just doesn’t seem to be catching on as quickly or as substantially as we’d like it to,” says Nuria Florentino, General Manager, People and Performance, John Holland.

The factors causing low numbers

What’s actually causing such a low rate of employment for women in construction? The pipelines to higher employment are encouraging – nearly 6,000 female apprentices and trainees undertaking training in construction, more than double the number in 2019 [3], but there are many factors that are contributing to the persistently low rate of female employment in the construction sector: 
  • Cultural challenges: A culture of exclusion, inadequate work facilities and unfriendly recruitment practices deter female participation and retention.
  • Lack of prioritisation: Female representation isn’t being prioritised during the hiring process, perpetuating the gender gap.
  • Limited career progression opportunities: Women are often relegated to less secure, lower-paid positions with limited opportunities for advancement, impeding their professional growth. 
  • Gender stereotypes: Either from women not believing that there are jobs for them in the industry, or men in the industry not believing that woman are capable of some roles in the industry." Second woman needs to be changed to 'women'.
“Flexibility is another key sticking point for female participation in the construction industry. Being able to balance childrearing responsibilities with strict and often long working hours can be challenging. But businesses also need to guard against any resentment if certain staff are allowed to finish early,” says Austin Blackburne, Senior Regional Director, Hays.

Creating change

To effect change and foster a more inclusive culture, increasing the number of women employed in the industry becomes paramount.  
Not only does encouraging more female participation go some way towards unlocking new talent to help with the skills shortage, having diversity in teams offers improved decision-making through more varied perspectives and enhanced retention through better engagement, and through these factors it also drives success.
“I’ve seen so much enthusiasm in the market for having more females on the team. They report that productivity goes up, that the culture on site is better, and even anecdotal reports that female apprentices are more willing to stick it out as they’ve made the decision that it’s the career that they want. One of our clients, Fletcher Construction in New Zealand are fixated on ensuring there’s a strong pipeline of female talent coming through and have established a diversity council chaired by the CEO, and it’s working. Over the past two years they have increased the number of female leaders from 12.8 per cent to 24 per cent,” says Marc Rutherford, Associate Director, Hays South Island NZ.

Encoding change

The Victorian Government’s Building Equality Policy requires that women make up three per cent of each trade role, seven per cent of each non-trade position and 35 per cent of management, supervisor and specialist labour roles. Four per cent of labour hours for apprenticeships and trainees must also be performed by women.
“This is all anyone is talking about at the moment. It’s a key agenda discussion at every board table and at the front of everyone’s mind. So at the very least it’s driving different conversations than previously had around women in construction,” says Blackburne.
If the numbers in these quotas remain as small as they are though, there is a significant chance that there will be no culture transformation. The concept of a “tipping point” for gender equality has been supported by various examples globally, where meaningful change is more likely to occur once a certain threshold has been crossed. A study by Peterson Institute for International Economics found that companies with at least 30 per cent women in executive positions were more likely to have women in other top management roles [4].
“It may sound cliched, but you can’t be what you can’t see, and there just aren’t enough women in the industry, at all levels, to effect change,” says Florentino. “The needle won’t move by just hiring one woman to a team, there needs to be three or four to start influencing the culture of that team.”
These higher thresholds enable the change to cascade from the top and gives women role models to look to when viewing construction as a career choice. In addition to meeting this threshold, not-for-profits like The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) play a key role in increasing visibility for women in the construction industry and providing a supportive space for members to connect, regardless of their career stage. These organisations are instrumental in welcoming women into construction and fostering collaborations among like-minded individuals, promoting diversity and innovative solutions within the industry.
“I think quotas are a good idea. While I’ve heard the argument that people are being put into roles that they aren’t ready for, I just haven’t seen any evidence of that. This is a fast industry and if any worker can’t handle the pace, they get out. What it has done is helped me have the conversation with my managers and leaders, it has created a sense of responsibility and it’s creating change. It’s always going to be easier to say let’s do things the same way we have always done them, so inspiring this change through regulation means that all the work of change isn’t just left to women,” says Florentino.

Where to from here?

Quotas and DE&I strategies are useful for addressing inequality across the board, but they only work or are worth implementing if they are backed by organised effort and practical steps to break down barriers.
“In the first instance you need to identify your allies. You will not be able to do anything by yourself, so find allies that are at a level above you, at the same level as you and in different functions across the business,” advises Florentino. “Then find your blockers and pick just two or three to address at a time. Picking off too much just often means nothing changes.”

Assess how Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) is prioritised in your organisation.

Conduct an assessment of your organisation and see where you’re doing well and where your weaknesses are. This creates a baseline to measure improvements from and allows you to identify the gaps where new strategies need to be created, or enacted. Ensure your focus on gender equality is included in the organisation’s wider strategy, in business decisions, and set diversity KPIs.

Set leadership targets

To be a part of the solution, organisations in the sector need to not only have female leaders but also have those that are already working successfully in the sector at the forefront. Organisations should be aiming for at least one-third of women in leadership positions to achieve the critical mass necessary to see tangible change in the company culture. This approach will not only attract younger women to the workforce but also challenge traditional beliefs held about the industry.

Offer mentorship and encourage network groups

Women will benefit from mentorship and networking opportunities to support them and help them navigate the construction industry. Establish mentorship programs with experienced female leaders already in the business, or from external associations to help guide, support and deliver career advice.

Address workplace policies and facilities

Ensure work-life balance is promoted and any potential gender disparities are addressed. Offer flexible work arrangements, parental leave policies and separate facilities such as adequate restrooms and changerooms for women on construction sites.
By not only attracting but also retaining the women that enter the industry through improved work practices and policies, the culture can begin to shift, allowing the next generation to gain visibility of female role models, envision a place for themselves in the construction industry and continue to increase the rate of change.

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