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Building Gender Equality into Construction Industry

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A new report from the University of NSW Sydney researchers has investigated why large construction companies are failing to attract, retain and support the progression of women professionals and what they can do about it.

The report, Demolishing Gender Structures, is the culmination of three years of research, and it presents findings from research at two major Australian construction companies.

According to the Australian Government Employment by Industry statistics, the construction sector is Australia’s third largest employer and the most male-dominated industry in the country. In 2016, 88 per cent of the construction workforce was male, which included 99 per cent of construction tradespeople and 86 per cent of construction managers and professionals.

The report found large construction companies are actively piloting a range of initiatives to support gender equality.

Jobsite spoke with the co-author of the report, Postdoctoral Fellow at The Human Rights Institute, Natalie Galea about how the research was undertaken and what the findings mean for the industry. 

“Our research is focused on construction professionals, managers and professionals involved in the delivery of construction projects, working for large construction companies,” Galea says. “Construction professionals are employed in a range of positions including site engineer, project engineer, project manager, site manager, foreman, design specialist, commercial manager, construction manager, and project director. Construction professionals generally hold a tertiary qualification, although, in some instances, they may have risen through the ranks via a trade. It does not include office/admin women”

Galea points out that the study concerned both men and women. The report found large construction companies are actively piloting a range of initiatives to support gender equality, for example, by flexibility initiatives, wellbeing initiatives, and gender targets. However, it also made recommendations for additional approaches.

According to the report, three factors have contributed to the gender imbalance:

•    Long hours and a culture of total availability that deters workers with care responsibilities.

•    Tolerance of sexism, which includes sexist drawings, wording, and behaviour.

•    Women are having to negotiate their parental leave and return, despite formal leave policies.

Among the recommendations released are for companies to:

•    Offer part-time, shared, and flexible roles and five-day work week programs that allow workers more time with family.

•    Employ a Zero tolerance to sexism, with a policy spelled out and enforced at inductions and events.

•    Ensure they offer fatigue monitoring as well as safe and secure women’s toilets and showers on site.

“Our research found three main factors undermine women’s retention: long hours and a culture of total availability, a tolerance of sexism, and women having to negotiate their parental leave and return,” said Galea.

"Rigid work practices still mean (women) are making a choice between having a family and a fulfilling career in construction—not both."

“Some large companies did provide childcare rebate provisions and paid parental leave, which are important steps forward. But, for most women in construction in 2018, rigid work practices still mean (women) are making a choice between having a family and a fulfilling career in construction—not both,” she continued.

Despite many leaps forward regarding workplace equality, the report found that discrimination was still evident, as Galea explained: “Sexism still exists in construction. In fact, it was written on the walls on some sites we studied. Sexist graffiti sexist language, and the presumption that women will do administrative work undermines women’s legitimacy as construction leaders on site, and it contributes to women leaving the sector.”

Many large companies have begun introducing measures to attract and retain women while the Government has a focus on attracting female tradespeople to the industry, said Galea: “Large construction companies are doing a number of things. They are putting targets on recruiting female graduates, undertaking gender pay analysis, and providing childcare rebates and paid parental leave. They are also piloting different flexible work initiatives.”

John Holland Group was one such company that recently undertook and rectified gender pay inequity {link to the story published on Jobsite a few months back}.

Galea continued: “Government, on the other hand, is focused on increasing the number of tradeswomen, who account for 1 per cent of tradespeople in Australia, through government procurement.

“The targets on tradeswomen by the government are far from ambitious, an ‘add women and stir’ response expecting women to fit into construction work practices, and they aren’t good for men or women,” she said.

"An ‘add women and stir’ government response expecting women to fit into construction work practices isn't good for men or women."

The report suggested a more strategic Government response to bridging the gender equality divide and included a multi-faceted approach as Galea explained: “We suggest that government should put ‘gender on the tender’.

“Firstly, the government should be aware of the effects of tight deadlines and slim margins on the construction workforce. They should, therefore, award tenders to contractors that prove they are adequately resourced, with fair and reasonable margins, who operate a five-day work week.

“Additionally, companies tendering for government work must demonstrate measurable gender equality and employee wellbeing initiatives alongside other critical elements like cost, time and design. This includes equal paid parental leave for men and women, part-time, shared and flexible construction roles, fatigue monitoring, secure toilets and showers for women on site (still an issue), and zero tolerance of sexism.”

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