Breaking barriers for women in construction

by Siobhan Day, Journalist, Infrastructure magazine

Construction has long been a male dominated industry, with the archetypal construction worker synonymous with masculinity. But when most industries are striving to dismantle these gender norms and are moving towards equality, why is the construction industry gender gap getting worse?

Infrastructure spoke with Dr Phillippa Carnemolla, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Technology Sydney, and Dr Natalie Galea, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of New South Wales, to find out about current industry perceptions and barriers to women entering and progressing in the construction industry.

Dr Phillippa Carnemolla was the 2018 recipient of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) International Women’s Day scholarship. This scholarship required her to spend 12 months undertaking a research study, with the scholarship funding the research.

Dr Carnemolla’s research involved investigating the perceptions of the construction industry by female high school students. Keeping in mind that women entering and remaining in the construction industry sits well below parity, Dr Carnemolla’s research examines how construction is portrayed and perceived by the very women it hopes to attract, as well as where they come from.

She’s now working closely with Dr Galea, also a past recipient of the NAWIC scholarship, whose research focuses on the barriers to women’s recruitment, retention and progression in construction.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ research on gender participation in the construction industry — the most male dominated industry in Australia — shows the significant disparity between men and women in the sector, particularly when looking at middle and upper management. The stats show a staggering 97 per cent of CEOs and 88 per cent of senior managers in the industry are men.

“This is proportionately greater than the male dominance found in Australian business generally,” Dr Carnemolla said. Perhaps more telling however is that women’s participation in construction is actually falling, decreasing from 17 per cent in 2006 to 12 per cent in 2018.

Dr Phillippa Carnemolla

Dr Phillippa Carnemolla

Social, economic, educational and exclusionary barriers

A diverse workforce is known to increase well-being and talent retention, but it can also lead to tangible economic benefits. A study by McKinsey & Company found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21 per cent more likely to outperform on profitability and 27 per cent more likely to have superior value creation. Additionally, companies in the bottom quartile for diversity were significantly less likely to achieve above-average profitability.

Without gender diversity, construction and infrastructure — the second largest industry in Australia and the third largest employer — is missing out on the talent pool of half the population and potentially reducing profitability.  

So, why aren’t women entering, staying and progressing in the construction industry? Dr Carnemolla and Dr Galea believe the answer is multidimensional.

“The barriers to entering the sector range from social, economic, educational and exclusionary industry practices. The reasons women leave the sector are equally diverse and range from a lack of flexibility and progression, poor parental leave practices and a tolerance of sexism,” Dr Carnemolla said.

Structural problems

Recruitment

In Dr Carnemolla’s study and accompanying report, Girls’ Perceptions of the Construction Industry: Building a Picture of who isn’t Interested in a Career in Construction and Why, the all girls high school students interviewed consistently reported the belief that the construction industry is not appealing because of its perceived exclusivity and gender imbalance.

The study found that schools, teachers and parents were not recommending a career in construction to girls, and parents’ perceptions of the industry are influential in steering students away from it.

Dr Carnemolla noted the lack of female role models in the construction industry, and the lack of understanding about the diverse scope of jobs and careers that comprise the sector. The participants also felt that the only women they see in the industry are generally young women holding the lollipop signs and directing traffic.

While these barriers to recruitment tend to be around perception, further barriers are encountered by women who have the interest and knowledge to enter into the industry. The research report by Dr Galea and colleagues at UNSW, Demolishing Gender Structures, found that the recruitment practices of the construction industry perpetuate a gender bias, with ‘informal’ recruitment, a lack of transparency in recruitment, and adherence to problematic work cultures.

According to the study, men are much more likely to access and benefit from ‘male’ networks, like sporting teams and industry connections, to secure employment opportunities and progress their careers. Alternatively, women are more likely to be recruited through formal channels, like online applications, which feature far less construction opportunities.

The report also found that companies in the sector tend to place a particular emphasis on ‘cultural fit’ when interviewing potential employees, which can severely limit women’s access and opportunities because of intrinsically masculine cultures.

Progression

For those women who do enter and remain in the industry, career progression is another hurdle and one that Dr Galea has experienced first hand.

“I studied construction management and spent 15 years delivering building, civil, defence and mining projects in Australia and the Middle East and North Africa for large contractors. I found it very difficult to progress within construction companies, despite being one of the few women in an operational role and working very hard,” she said.  

Dr Natalie Galea

Dr Natalie Galea

Deconstructing the issues

Dr Carnemolla and Dr Galea are now working together to try and break down these barriers and increase gender equality in the industry. The next part of their research that they are collaboratively undertaking is about understanding how other industries have tackled this issue.

“We need to speak with all stakeholders including employees, employers and prospective recruitments in order to understand how to best design any rebrand. It is an important next step for us,” Dr Carnemolla said.

Dr Galea said employers are concerned about the sector’s looming skills shortage and are funding academic research to understand the problems.

“UNSW research showed employers were focused on setting targets on female graduates and had reviewed their graduate recruitment processes. The research also showed that young women joined companies where they could see women leading and developing a strong career. Retaining and progressing women in construction however, remains an area that employers need to focus on,” Dr Galea said.

Dr Carnemolla said a commitment to diversity in any workplace will result in positive outcomes across many professional and personal domains of productivity and well-being.

“In our workplace, having better diversity in teams leads to improved problem solving and innovation, and workplaces where everyone feels they belong and can contribute equally. It also addresses the skills shortage our sector faces and improves the sector’s gender pay gap. It’s good for men too. The business case for diversity has been documented in reports internationally.”

Rebuilding the sector

As a result of her research findings, Dr Carnemolla made a series of recommendations that will enable NAWIC, employer groups, leading companies and broader construction networks to better engage with high school girls and to communicate the potential for a construction career.

These recommendations include:

  • Construction needs to reposition itself as a career for both women and men. The construction sector’s employer groups and leading companies should undertake a campaign that rebrands construction as an aspirational career. Students, parents and schools need to be convinced
  • The industry needs diverse role models and champions to communicate the potential and diversity of roles within a construction career
  • Further research into the role that schools play in supporting careers in construction for girls is recommended. This will enable a better understanding of how schools can be better informed about opportunities within the construction industry for all female students, across all levels of academic achievement
  • The construction industry should be encouraged to review its recruitment practices to include non-school leavers — warranting further research into exactly where interest in construction training comes from and how it can be encouraged from an early age. Further research is needed into how construction training and tertiary education is marketed/targeted to understand why particular schools are drawing more interest

Dr. Carnemolla is optimistic about the future of the construction industry pointing to the opportunities created by the fourth wave of industrial
revolution and Australia’s increasing commitment to inclusive workplaces.

“The introduction of new technologies, coupled with the important work already underway in understanding women’s experiences throughout the entire work cycle, offers new ways to renegotiate assumptions around gender preferences — not just in the construction industry, but a variety of industries,” Dr. Carnemolla said.

Dr Galea was more cautious in her response regarding the journey ahead, “I am less optimistic. I think the sector — clients, contractors and unions — have a lot of work to do. They first must acknowledge the problem and their responsibility to address it.

“We hope that this most recent NAWIC Report will encourage construction and infrastructure companies to stop, reflect and act on how the industry is perceived by people outside it — including the women it hopes to recruit, their families and their educators.”

To learn more about NAWIC, the IWD Scholarship or to download a copy of Dr Phillippa Carnemolla’s report Girls’ Perceptions of the Construction Industry: Building a Picture of who isn’t Interested in a Career in Construction and Why, visit nawic.com.au.

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