In the interests of transparency, let’s just get it out of the way upfront and admit that this is a stupid question. Worthy of 17th century misogynistic ideals, this idea went out with the horse-drawn tractor and prohibition. So, why are we still asking ourselves this question (secretly and quietly, and certainly not in the presence of your feminist sister-in-law)?
Despite advances of women in the workplace across many industries, construction remains the final frontier for the female species. It is estimated that less than 2% of the construction workforce are women. This is excluding female representation in non-manual roles such as administration, accounting, marketing and design—in which women, more widely, make up around 14% of personnel.
Why are there so few women in construction?
Key industry bodies such as the Master Builders Association actively support an increase of women in the construction workforce, and even offer an apprenticeship mentoring scheme. Despite lobbying for higher participation of women in the industry, there are still key factors holding back growth in this area. First and perhaps most obviously, is the issue of sexism. Many women report still being subject to sexist behaviour from male colleagues and managers in the construction industry. A UK study revealed that as much as 51% of the female workforce have reported being treated poorly by men in the construction industry, based on their sex. The key concerns included lower pay, lack of promotional opportunities and feeling isolated—but more worryingly also included bullying and harassment by their male counterparts.
With advances in awareness and zero-tolerance attitudes towards harassment in modern-day Australia, many industries have seen an improvement in not only female workers, but in diversity in other areas. However, with construction still lagging behind, it is clear that more needs to be done.
Another major factor prohibiting the advance of women in construction is the lack of promotion in schools, universities and the wider public domain for women to enter the industry. Excluding executive roles for a moment and focusing on manual labour (where many construction industry careers begin), these entry-level positions are still largely geared towards attracting male candidates. Even the media representation of the construction workforce is still dominated by your typical Aussie bloke in his fluorescent work-wear. A key to opening the eyes of young women to a career in construction is a change in image and attitude, more broadly across society, to include women as an integral part of the mix.
Finally, as an article by the Sydney Morning Herald discovered while shadowing both female and male construction workers in their day-to-day working lives—the construction industry is not geared to be family-friendly. Increasingly longer working hours, and often 6 or even 7-day working weeks mean that talented and qualified women are not attracted to the industry. According the the SMH article, suicide rates within the construction industry are double that of the rest of the workforce. Divorce, depression and the enormous stress of impossible deadlines seem to be par for the course, in the life of a construction worker. Despite the advances in technology which make previously ‘heavy-lifting’ style jobs accessible to virtually anyone, the conditions are simply not conducive to, nor compatible with suitable work-life balance and lifestyle options, which are important to many.
What are the benefits of having women in the industry?
The Australian government openly admits that diversity in the workplace results in better outcomes for companies, despite the fact that figures on construction workplace participation don’t yet reflect this understanding. In fact, a study by Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission has found that not only is a diverse workplace more efficient, it is also more likely to turn a profit. Businesses who promote gender equality, and boast a more gender-diverse workforce are also more likely to attract and retain quality staff, enhance performance and break into target markets.
According the Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, women are more likely to attain bachelor and postgraduate degree qualifications, across all age groups. This not only means that the construction industry is missing out on a large pool of qualified and motivated candidates, but also that their interaction with other industry stakeholders is unnecessarily limited. By employing more women across all roles in the construction workforce, the industry would be better positioned to interact with, and gain access to key target markets. As the construction industry is integral to the Australian economy, it only makes sense that increased numbers of women in the field is tantamount to success; not only within the construction industry specifically, but the economy as a whole.
So, let’s put this question to bed once and for all. Women should most definitely be working in construction. Now, what are we going to do about it?