Despite improvements, the construction industry can be an unwelcoming place for women, but it shouldn’t be.
Of the major industries in Australia, the most male-dominated is the construction sector, and a new report by HR services company Randstad has some suggestions as to why that might be.
According to the report – which is based on a survey of 710 men and women who work in the Australian construction, property and engineering industries – 60 per cent of women in the sector say they have been subject to gender discrimination in the workplace, and close to two in five (37 per cent) have experienced inappropriate behaviour from a male colleague.
Promisingly, 71 per cent of respondents said they have noticed a positive shift in the way women are treated. But the rest of the findings show there’s still a long way to go.
The report also points to barriers to promotion and a lack of women in senior positions, as well as industry stereotypes and inflexible working conditions, as other causes of the disparity.
It’s a man’s world… but that’s no excuse
Some might not find these findings are particularly shocking: the construction industry has a blokey reputation, existing in the public consciousness as a domain of brawny cat-callers and blue-collar rambunctiousness. But if the problems of gender discrimination are more palpable in construction than in other sectors, that doesn’t make them any more excusable.
Indeed, Randstad’s report points to a number of ways the industry is suffering from a lack of female participation — and that goes beyond the straightforward unfairness of workers being excluded from advancement opportunities in the workplace due to their gender.
For instance, the construction industry isn’t finding enough skilled workers to fill the positions it already has.
“The latest Government figures for the country’s two most populous states, Victoria and New South Wales, reveal that less than 40 per cent of construction trade vacancies are being filled,” the reports says.
“That’s why we should be looking at the largely untapped pool of potential female apprentices and recruits.”
There are other benefits for businesses whose workforce better reflects the gender make-up of the society it serves, the report highlights increased innovation and productivity resulting from new ideas and perspectives, greater competitiveness when tendering for public contracts with governments that have diversity in mind, and the potential for greater gender diversity to lead to better inclusivity for other marginalised groups.
Workplace diversity in all its forms, as HRM has previously reported, also benefits a business’s bottom line.
Five ways forward
Randstad’s study includes five recommendations for how workplaces in the construction industry can address the disparity between male and female talent:
- Challenge stereotypes and shift perceptions
This is an industry whose public face is heavily male — and young women considering career choices notice this fact. “The industry needs to sell itself better — not merely by repositioning it as a career path for both genders or championing high achieving female role model, but also in communicating the diverse and challenging roles that require a difference in character and skill,” says the report.
- Fair deal on recruitment and progression
One in five women in construction believe gender has been a reason they’ve been overlooked for a promotion. And, as 2018 research from the University of New South Wales found, men are assumed to be capable, while women have their professional capabilities questioned or singled out. This, Randstad’s report notes, “underscores the need for more systematic and objective selection in opening up equal opportunities for women in the industry.”
- Sort out working conditions for everyone
Construction is an industry dominated by long and inflexible working hours, and where parental leave is seen as an option for women only — a resource cost that individual employees must strategically plan their career around. The report urges the promotion of job sharing, standardised work hours, removing Saturday work, setting up projects with gender equality in mind and, perhaps most importantly, having a zero tolerance policy towards sexism.
- Time for women to “lean in”
“A lot of male managers still believe that gender equality is a second-order priority or even something to resist,” the report says, while noting that because men occupy the majority of management positions, it is important for them to pursue change.
“Women, therefore, have to take the initiative through mentoring, setting up networks and communicating the case for diversity.”
- Government should look beyond tick-box targets
Because of governments’ influence in the industry, they can implement targets. Randstad, however, urges “qualitative and quantitative objectives on diversity and inclusion”. “At best,
it can lead to a genuine re-think of the culture that holds back women and how it can be challenged,” the report read.
Some companies in the industry are already looking at expanding opportunities for women, Alison Mirams, the CEO of construction company Roberts Pizzarotti, said in an interview with create magazine. She wants to make construction a more welcoming place for women.
“I have a passion for having women in construction because I am a female in the industry, but also because there is so much documented proof that if you have more women in your organisation, you will be more successful,” she says.
Roberts Pizzarotti is taking a few approaches to supporting staff needs around work hours. On two of its six-day sites, workers only work a five-day week, while working on a Saturday is compensated with a subsequent weekday off.
To overcome the difficulties in finding female candidates, Mirams says she requests that recruiters send her women’s resumes even when she is not recruiting.
“I will still interview them,” she says.
Randstad Australia’s general manager, diversity and inclusion Kerry McQuillan hopes the report will show employees which areas to focus on to diversify the industry.
“Our research has shown that workplaces certainly need to do more in order to attract and retain female talent by satisfying job expectations, breaking down the gender barriers and providing more stimulating work with greater opportunities for career progression,” she says.
“We can see that by raising awareness around these issues, employers are starting to sit up and take action. By keeping this conversation alive and bringing these issues to the forefront, we can make a real difference for the entire industry.”