By Infrastructure Australia Chief Executive, Adam Copp

As the infrastructure sector continues to face a significant skills and labour shortage, we also face a very real solution — improving gender diversity.

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion at the 2023 Women in Construction, Engineering, and Infrastructure Summit. Facilitated by Infrastructure NSW Acting CEO, Janine Lonergan, and joined by Australian Constructors Association CEO, Jon Davies, and Maree Bridger, Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts COO, the conversation covered a range of issues relating to diversity in the workforce.

Panelists all made the critical point that increasing diversity is imperative to the success of any workforce, especially at a time when labour shortages are a significant issue.

An industry short on everyone

It is a well-known fact that the infrastructure sector is facing a critical skills shortage. From our Market Capacity research, we know that thi is facing a critical skills shortage.s year public infrastructure projects are expected to face a shortage of 226,000 skilled workers.

While this skills shortage is not unique to the sector, what is unique is the lack of diversity across its workforce. Insights from our Market Capacity research also reveal that female representation across the construction sector stands at just 14 per cent. For on-site roles, this number falls dramatically to just two per cent. This hasn’t changed in over a decade.

In the face of critical skills shortages, the infrastructure industry has tried to power through by demanding more of its workforce. Put simply, workers have had to go harder and faster to meet project demands. The result has been excessively long working hours, stress, burnout, job dissatisfaction and poor mental health. It’s a complicated landscape in a sector facing a number of challenges, but this approach has made the industry an undesirable place to work.

In fact, we know through early findings of our 2023 Market Capacity research that over 50 per cent of apprentices and trainees who completed infrastructure training in recent years did not enter their intended occupation, while 20 per cent did not enter any infrastructure-related occupation.

The benefits of gender diversity

So how can gender diversity lead to better outcomes? Importantly, it is the morally right thing to do. We should strive for equity and inclusion as a normal way of operating. But the benefits of increasing gender diversity within any workforce, especially for the infrastructure sector, are incredibly rich and rewarding.

We all know diversity encourages a flow of different ideas, fresh perspectives and creativity that can drive positive change and innovation. For the infrastructure sector, greater innovation will be necessary for its survival in the face of stagnating productivity.

There are also significant economic benefits for increasing diversity. According to the World Economic Forum, companies with more diverse management teams have reported 19 per cent higher revenue. In addition, improving gender pay is estimated to improve the global economy by a staggering 26 per cent.

Then there is the significant cultural change that can follow by introducing greater diversity, which ultimately benefits everyone. In the current climate, a significant benefit for the industry would be an increased pool of people to draw from to alleviate the pressure felt by the skills shortage.

Achieving greater diversity

The methods for increasing diversity in the workforce are clear and already laid out for us by bodies such as the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Companies need to develop diversity and inclusion policies, strategies and plans, and address key issues such as flexible working arrangements, while also embedding equality, diversity and inclusion KPIs.

From Infrastructure Australia’s perspective, in our Delivering Outcomes Report, we advocate for the embedding of equality, diversity and inclusion objectives through each infrastructure investment as part of a holistic and consistent approach to achieving this need.

Governments at all levels also have a role to play in leveraging the procurement process for public infrastructure projects to achieve this as well. This is one of the most powerful tools available to governments to drive effective change and guide the industry towards achieving greater diversity.

Changing the way projects are delivered and adopting more innovative working practices can also be a powerful way to attract and retain more diverse workforces. One example is for companies to switch to modern methods of construction such as off-site manufacturing, which can ease the physical burden for workers and provide more flexibility in the hours needed to deliver a project.

These are just a few key examples of how gender diversity can be improved within the infrastructure industry. Although, there is one more key element for enabling gender diversity to truly be able to grow within the infrastructure industry, which is through strong leadership.

Senior leaders in the sector should be trained to fully appreciate the challenges and benefits of equality, diversity, and inclusion, and learn the best practice methods for achieving effective outcomes. There are some really strong examples of leaders taking charge to make a difference.

The experience of Alison Mirams, founding CEO of Roberts and Co, is a shining example; real and impactful solutions were implemented under her leadership. Solutions such as a five-day work week, which fundamentally changed workplace flexibility, equality, and health and wellbeing outcomes.

By relentlessly advocating for diversity, challenging the status-quo and connecting to the practical issues impacting women in the workplace, real change was achieved. Then there is the leadership of Mr Davies to set the goal of having 75 per cent of members achieve the Workplace Gender Equality Agency Employer of Choice citation.

At the end of the day, all avenues need to be explored and adopted to drive greater gender diversity within the infrastructure sector if collectively we are to make headway in addresssing the labour gap and productivity challenges.

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