International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women worldwide. It also marks a call to action to accelerate women’s equality. The construction industry is a great place to start.

In 2022, the theme for International Women’s Day (IWD) was #breakthebias. As per the organisation’s website:

Whether deliberate or unconscious, bias makes it difficult for women to move ahead. Knowing that bias exists isn’t enough. Action is needed to level the playing field.

The #breakthebias theme asks all of us to actively call out gender bias, discrimination and stereotyping each time we see it, whether that be at work, at home, in the community or online. While IWD occurs once a year, the #breakthebias theme provides focus and direction for year-long activity. Below, we take a look at the construction industry.

What are the stats?

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, just 13 per cent of construction employees are women. While women’s participation in the workforce has steadily increased over time, the same cannot be said for the construction industry – women’s participation in the sector has declined from 17 per cent in 2006 to its aforementioned current level.

The issue is relevant for both executive and onsite roles. Of the 13 per cent, about 67 per cent are employed in administrative roles, nine per cent are managers and another nine per cent are other professionals. Six per cent are technicians and tradies, five per cent are labourers and fewer than one per cent are machinery operators.

Research shows that the way forward is to employ more women. More women in the construction industry can positively affect performance, profitability, productivity, innovation, mental health and inclusivity, all while helping to bridge the skills gap and alleviate recruitment issues.
Here, we consolidate the reasons why more women in construction is a no-brainer and look at ways we can improve their participation. We also talk to some of the women who are helping to #breakthebias at Duratec.

What are the benefits of having more women in construction?

It sounds simple, right? By not employing more women, companies are missing out on the skills and capabilities of a large sector of the workforce. But there are many other benefits brought about by having women in construction – below are some of the reasons why it just makes sense.

1. Better performance, higher profitability

More women in the workforce makes for better economic outcomes overall. According to Goldman Sachs, narrowing the gap between the employment rates of women and men in Australia could potentially boost GDP by 11 per cent. In an industry staffed by as few women as construction, the economic gains are likely to be significantly higher.

An increase in women at all levels of business, including senior management, also leads to better organisational performance. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, organisations with inclusive cultures outperform those that are non-inclusive with 39 per cent higher customer satisfaction, 22 per cent greater productivity and 27 per cent higher profitability.

Research by the Australian government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) found that an increase in the share of women in leadership positions by 10 per cent or more led to a 6.6 per cent increase in the market value of Australian ASX-listed companies – that’s the equivalent of $104 million.

2. Increased productivity and innovation

Inclusion, which can be brought about by the employment of more women, is closely linked to employee engagement – a key ingredient for productivity. Women whose roles are flexible, in particular, are among the most productive members of the workforce.

According to a study by EY, in an average year, women in flexible roles deliver an extra week-and-a-half of productive work. In other words, for every 71 women employed in a flexible role, an organisation gains a productivity bonus of one additional full-time employee.

Employing more women also brings diversity in skills and thought. Fresh ideas, different life experiences and new perspectives lead to increased creativity and improved problem-solving, which brings about greater innovation.

Innovation is vital when approaching some of the construction industry’s big-picture challenges, such as sustainable development and the harnessing of new technology. Moreover, increasingly turbulent markets reward companies that adapt, while hindering those that cling rigidly to old ways of working.

3. Bridging the skills gap and solving recruitment shortfalls

The construction industry is currently facing a severe skills shortage. The latest government figures for the country’s two most populous states, Victoria and New South Wales, reveal that fewer than 40 per cent of construction trade vacancies are being filled. And it’s set to get worse.

To meet current projected demand, the industry needs an additional 300,000 employees, apprentices and independent contractors over the next decade, as well as 50,000 new entrants a year; this would make up for the increasing number of workers entering retirement.

In an industry that has traditionally and historically relied on men to fill roles, women offer an untapped pool of potential apprentices and recruits. As Craig Edmunds, CEO of construction company Fairbrother, says, “Not only does employing more women all of a sudden give you access to a whole raft of new employees, but they also bring some unique skills and new perspectives on resolving issues.”

4. Advantage in government tendering

Federal, state and local governments account for a significant proportion of construction contracts. This source of business is likely to become even more prominent on the back of a surge in infrastructure investment.

WGEA’s Workplace Gender Equality Procurement Principles were introduced as part of a commitment to fairer and more consistent measures for ensuring the government only deals with organisations who comply with the Workplace Gender Equality Act.

Many listed businesses are adopting similar requirements. Organisations must be diverse enough to win these contracts – those lacking gender diversity risk being overlooked for other, more progressive companies.

5. Positive effect on industry culture and improvement of workers’ mental health

Gender diversity in the workplace improves the wellbeing of both women and men, which is important given the prevalence of mental illness in the construction industry. Dr Phillipa Carnemolla of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) says that better diversity leads to “workplaces where everyone feels they belong and can contribute equally”.

A report by RMIT University detailed the benefits of gender equality on the construction industry’s culture: “Increasing the proportion of women in the industry can improve communication and… help to challenge and change the prevalent macho culture, especially around bullying.”

Furthermore, according to global human resource consultancy Randstad, younger people entering the workforce are actively seeking out diverse and inclusive organisations. More women on site can also help to strengthen inclusion across the board. For example, LGBTIQ+ and Indigenous workers may “feel more comfortable bringing their true selves to work”.

How do we increase the number of women in construction?

As the Minister for Economic Development; Industrial Relations in Victoria, Tim Pallas, says “there will only be equal numbers of men and women working in construction if we take steps to attract, recruit and retain female workers”. Here, we outline five ways we could go about it.

1. Promote STEM subjects, vocational training and apprenticeships to young women

Communication about career opportunities, in all industries, usually starts at school. Careers counselling, however, has traditionally been gendered, encouraging young women to undertake a university degree, rather than a trade, and assuming they are not interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM subjects).

Strategies to break down these barriers include demonstrating to young women the career pathways that STEM classes open up, and advocating the value of vocational education and training. It is important also to address any potential stereotypes or biases that teachers and careers counsellors may have about the industry.

The funding of apprenticeships is another way to attract women to the construction industry. Some progressive organisations actively target women for their apprenticeship programs and provide scholarships for women. They also promote the opportunities available after the apprenticeship program to reassure women that a long-term career with the organisation is available and encouraged.

2. Challenge stereotypes and change perceptions

A report by UTS researcher Dr Phillippa Carnemolla showed that female Year 11 students in New South Wales were put off by the lack of gender diversity within construction and did not see it as an aspirational career.

The Department of Family & Community Services’ Women NSW says there is an underlying assumption that trade work is “dirty, dangerous and heavy”. Other traditional and outdated views of femininity and ‘women’s work’ lead to a perception that trade work is not suitable for women.

According to Randstad, the industry needs to sell itself better, not only by presenting career paths for all genders and championing high-achieving women role models, but also by communicating the diverse and challenging roles that require a difference in character and skill, something that perhaps only women can bring.

Victoria’s Women in Construction Strategy suggests the implementation of a campaign that eradicates the attitudes that underpin the culture of gender inequality. The strategy says that such a campaign should involve all workers, including managers and employers, and that it would only be effective if men saw the benefit too.

3. Improve recruitment processes

Job advertisements are a great place to start when it comes to improved recruitment processes. An effective strategy is to use images of women at work, e.g. on site in high-vis and safety gear. Inclusive language is also important – ‘tradesperson’, for example, rather than ‘tradesman’.
In the past, employers have hired through informal networks to which women often don’t have access. The Australian Human Rights Commission recommends a documented, transparent and standardised recruitment process. Some organisations have multiple people review applications, while others remove names from letters and CVs.

According to WGEA, gender bias – conscious or unconscious – can affect which candidates get recruited for certain roles and which do not. Recruiters can be trained, however, to self-monitor for any bias or stereotypes about the sort of work women can do.

Victoria’s Women in Construction Strategy also flags the notion of ‘cultural fit’, which essentially means hiring workers similar to those who are already in the workforce. In construction, that rarely refers to women. Organisations should review the concept of ‘cultural fit’ to determine whether it is a gendered and exclusionary process.

4. Sort out working conditions for everyone

Randstad suggests that many rigid working practices within construction are a result of culture and tradition, rather than any practical imperative. “Even on a building site, there is no reason why some posts can’t be carried out on a shared or staggered-hour basis, or allow for parental leave”.

Victoria’s Women in Construction Strategy agrees that programs designed for women returning to work after raising children would attract more women to the industry. Job-sharing and flexible hours would also be appealing, as would a workplace culture that doesn’t tolerate biased attitudes or overwork. Provision of childcare for parents and carers is another strategy.

5. Promote role models and mentors

The visibility of female role models is an effective way to attract women to the construction industry. Seeing that other women can contribute to and excel in the sector is appealing to those just starting out.

A report cited by Victoria’s Women in Construction Strategy says that as well as role models, mentoring programs could “contribute to a culture of support and community for women construction workers”. Having an established woman colleague as a mentor could make a new recruit feel less alone and help them learn the ropes faster.

One study found that mentoring provided women with the self-confidence and skills to pursue career advancement. Mentors were valuable as they could share their personal career highlights and the path they took to be successful in a non-traditional role.