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By Amanda Rose, Founding Director of Western Sydney Women

With only 12 per cent of women making up its workforce, it’s no secret that the construction industry is dominated by men. The real story is that despite their best efforts, neither government nor industry can shift the stubbornly entrenched gender ratio as quickly as they’d like.

Even in the face of a higher-than average earnings potential and a critical shortage of skilled workers, a career in construction fails to have widespread appeal to women, resulting in a serious imbalance that is steadily getting worse.

A growing industry in need of resources

The current lack of qualified workers is so acute it’s estimated that in 2023 there’ll be 105,000 jobs that won’t be filled. To further compound the issue, forecasts by IHS Markit show total real construction industry spending is expected to grow by 3.5 per cent in 2022 to reach 4.2 per cent by 2024, meaning that one of Australia’s biggest employers will continue to suffer from a lack of skilled labour without some form of serious intervention.

It’s laudable that the New South Wales Government’s Connecting Women to Trades program has received a second bout of funding, however programs are just the start – we need to address the entrenched inequality that is currently rife within the industry.

When at least 51 per cent of women working in building and construction have experienced sexual harassment at work, a commitment to creating safe and inclusive workplaces is hardly a vote of confidence for working in construction. It needs to be a top down bottom up approach.

According to a NAWIC survey 73 per cent of women in construction said they had experienced gender adversity while on the job. Simple things such as a lack of female or gender-neutral toilets on site, to intimidating treatment at the hands of colleagues; all contribute to a toxic work environment that endangers women’s wellbeing.

The reality is women are keen to work, but they’re unlikely to jump on board if they perceive the industry to be irredeemably hostile to their interests. Beyond a more female-friendly culture and equal pay, effort needs to be directed towards fostering an interest in construction from a young age, increasing the opportunity for young women and girls to have practical experience in the industry and making mentors and role models more accessible.

How do we bring the industry to the 21st century?

As other traditionally male-dominated industries like law and finance rapidly undergo image rehabilitation to meet the 21st century standard, construction is consistently being left behind – and it’s not always because of lack of effort on the part of employers.

Recent research into the issue revealed women believe they would ‘not be respected’ and felt they would be ‘intimidated’ and discriminated against if they worked in construction. These negative perceptions are deeply held, and the stereotype that construction is all about manual labour, high vis gear and toxic masculinity is pervasive.

Without female role models to look to and no chance to experience the modern construction industry or learn about the variety of roles it offers, women can’t even picture themselves in a successful career in construction. On the other hand, examples of blatant discrimination are rampant and do little to assuage women’s doubts and fears about the sector.

We also need more male mentors that can set a standard and be an example to the rest of their team, company and industry.

According to a 2020 study on women in construction by RMIT, women’s professional capabilities were regularly “scrutinised, questioned or devalued”. They subsequently felt the need to work harder than male co-workers to prove themselves; mistakes were put down to their gender and complaints about poor treatment would frequently lead to further victimisation.

Even the matter of entry into construction is rife with pitfalls – from the recruitment process which is often through informal networks and wordof-mouth recommendations to the way apprenticeships are set up, which routinely disadvantage women over men.

A portrait of Amanda Rose, Founder, Managing Director, International speaker, experienced consultant, advocate, media commentator

Building better pathways into construction for women

For there to be long-lasting change, legislators and industry must take a ‘ground-up’ approach where young women and girls are exposed to the various roles available in construction.

Not only does there need to be education and awareness starting from an early age for all genders, but parents, educators, and career counsellors also need to be made aware of the rich opportunities that exist within the field.

Construction is not just limited to plumbing, carpentry, or electrical and mechanical work; there are positions in project management, engineering, land surveying, commercial management and more.

Beyond apprenticeships, alternative pathways into the industry include university, internships, and TAFE. As it stands, career counsellors are poorly informed about career options in modern construction and many fail to share them with young women at the same rate as young men.

Increasing the opportunities for young women to have practical experience in the industry also makes sense, because for women to feel comfortable enough to pursue a career in construction, there needs to be more tailored programs to develop the skills, knowledge and contacts needed to progress in the sector.

Developing apprenticeships to suit more women – including mature age candidates – is another way to boost female participation in construction and trades.

Grassroots initiatives like the Building Your New Career program primes women with effective communication and technical skills to enter the industry via a series of valuable microcertifications, such as a construction White Card and first aid certificate.

Last of all, making female mentors and role models more accessible to women gives them a valuable point of reference in a majority-male environment. It is grassroots memberled support that will help affirm women’s value in construction and enable them to truly thrive.

If women can have direct exposure to the industry from a younger age and access to a wide range of mentors and role models, they’ll feel more confident and well-equipped to take on its challenges.

Without sustained effort to demolish the fundamental barriers women and girls face in entering construction, the new government is unlikely to achieve its goal of boosting female participation by 15 per cent by 2030.

Solving the issue of too few women in construction would go a long way to alleviating the pressures on the industry during this unprecedented time. Without it, the infrastructure sector will continue to stagnate and eventually take its toll on the wider economy

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