Why are so few women in the construction industry?

Some of the off-putting factors are just as detrimental to men

In Australia, women make up 15% of the armed forces. In the police force, the figure is 20%, and in both services the statistics are creeping up, albeit slowly. By contrast, in the construction industry, the number of women working has fallen from 17% in 2006 to 12% in 2016, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures.

The construction industry really is "the last frontier", as described by UNSW academics Louise Chappell and Natalie Galea in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Galea and Chappell are two of the co-authors of the report, Demolishing Gender Structures, and spent three years researching the experiences of women and men in the sector – shadowing 44 white-collar construction professionals and interviewing a further 61 working on Australian construction projects to gain an understanding of the challenges women face.

The participants ranged from entry level through to project directors, construction managers and site managers and were employed by large construction firms – chosen because they generally have inclusion and diversity policies in place.

But while a company can have gender diversity strategies and targets, how these are translated into action naturally determines their effectiveness.

The barriers to women's entry into the construction industry begins, of course, in the recruitment process where, traditionally, employment has been through informal networks and word-of-mouth recommendations that women are less likely to be a part of.

The perception of the type of worker who would fit into the existing culture and the inconsistency around interviews has advantaged men over women, says Galea, a research associate at UNSW Built Environment.

"Male sponsorship of other men has been really important in getting a foot in the door, particularly when it comes to being picked for a project team. Project directors like to have 'a good crew' that has worked together before."

This makes the industry hard to break into, especially if you're a woman. The fact that Galea and her colleagues didn't come across any female project directors in three years speaks volumes.

'Now companies are using Sundays as a catch-up day if a construction is behind schedule. It used to be Saturdays'


Poor mental health outcomes

In response, male construction professionals voiced the opinion – though it wasn't spoken loudly, says Galea – that gender targets imposed on them were giving women an unfair advantage.

"The underlying assumption was that recruitment and career progression was based on a meritocracy, but this was heavily weighted towards more informal networks. Currently, construction runs the risk of being a homogenous workforce that is missing out on potential [female] talent," she says.

The truth is that there is a varied understanding of what diversity means from company to company – and therefore a varied readiness to accept it, says Galea.

But it's not all bad news. The researchers are keen to point out that progress is being made in some quarters to make the sector more gender diverse and several major construction companies are piloting flexibility and health and wellbeing initiatives that benefit men as well as women in achieving a work-life balance.

Strides have also been made in instigating paid parental leave and childcare rebate provision. And, at the least, targets have been set on the issue of the gender pay gap.

But there is still a long way to go to change the culture and the researchers found that the factors putting women off from working in construction are just as detrimental to men.

The industry is notorious for poor mental health outcomes among the workforce. Suicides rather than workplace accidents are the leading cause of death among males aged 25 to 44, with someone taking their life every second day, according to the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention. MATES in Construction, a national suicide prevention program, was set up to try and reduce these awful statistics.

Having worked for 15 years as a project manager in the construction industry, Gales says she has seen a creep in hours which hasn't helped.

"Now companies are using Sundays as a catch-up day if a construction is behind schedule. It used to be Saturdays."

During the shadowing of various employees, Galea reports that though it was hard initially, men did open up to her, and their revelations were often quite troubling.

"They described to me how they weren't sleeping, or were suffering from anxiety, or going through divorce. Or you would find younger men looking at the effects of work on senior management and saying, 'I don't want to be like that'."

Rewarding and shaming

But if change is going to occur, it has to be championed by senior management.

"When there's a reluctance by some project leaders to take responsibility for initiatives that create gender diversity – and improve working conditions for everyone – then they fall by the wayside, maybe because they fall outside the focus of project delivery," says Galea.

Another of the co-authors, Abigail Powell, says the recommendations of the report to business include "stop rewarding and promoting excessive hours and 'shaming' those who don't comply with excessive hours".

Although the industry works under very competitive conditions in terms of contracting, with penalties for failing to deliver on time, Powell says flexible working is far from impossible.

"Flexible working can be built into the project from the outset as opposed to thinking about it afterwards, says Powell, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Social Impact at UNSW Business School. 

"Likewise, job sharing is seen as an absolute no-no. But it wouldn't be that difficult to implement three days a week with a crossover day in preference to losing a valuable member of staff,"?

Other report recommendations centre around the tolerance of sexism that in any other profession would be considered unacceptable. 

"Women who worked in construction would say to us, 'If you can't handle a penis drawn on a wall, then construction probably isn't for you'," says Galea.

"How to address the informal stuff is key," says Powell. "Around sexist behaviour, for example, we need to be encouraging men to challenge it when they see it taking place. These issues are there in most male-dominated industries."

'The over-arching recommendation is that what's good for implementing changes around getting more women into the profession is good for all employees'


Good for all employees

Kelly Rothwell, head of school at Women and Leadership Australia, worked in her father's road construction business before working as a consultant delivering safety cognitive-behavioural culture programs in the mining, construction and heavy industries.

She notes how subverting typical gender stereotypes leads to a backlash against women in male dominated industries.

"When women display behaviours or traits that are more stereotypically masculine, they are likely to be penalised and evaluated more negatively. The situation is the same for men who display stereotypically feminine traits."

Rothwell says that women find themselves in an "impossible dilemma".

"If they do not behave assertively, they cannot demonstrate leadership competence, but if they do behave assertively, they are considered less promotable."

Powell believes that if change is going to happen, then "it's about not positioning issues around gender and workplace practices in construction as exclusively a women's issue".

"The over-arching recommendation is that what's good for implementing changes around getting more women into the profession is good for all employees," Powell says.

As huge amounts of research show that having more women in the workforce advantages organisations economically, and as men working in construction continue to suffer in silence, the question is: how fast can the industry move towards reform?

The authors of  Demolishing Gender Structures were Louise Chappell, a professor in the UNSW school of social sciences; Martin Loosemore, a professor at UNSW Built Environment; Abigail Powell, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Social Impact at UNSW Business School; Natalie Galea and Adam Rogan, research associates at UNSW Built Environment.



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