Progress is in the pipeline

In 2023, construction remains the most male-dominated sector in Australia, with female participation at just 13 per cent. How does the sector build workplaces that are attractive to everyone and that women can thrive in?

In 2023, construction remains the most male-dominated sector in Australia, with female participation at just 13 per cent. How does the sector build workplaces that are attractive to everyone and that women can thrive in?

Women remain an untapped talent pool for many blue-collar industries in Australia. Only two per cent of women in the construction sector are in trades, but industry bodies are working to improve the numbers. For example, the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) has set a goal of 25 per cent female participation in the construction sector by 2025.

This trend also appears in the water sector. Shifting values within urban water businesses have seen an increased focus on diversity and inclusion. Gender equity is a meaningful way to foster better outcomes for workers, customers, and the community.

Across the sector, authorities and councils put ‘gender on the tender’, asking contractors and suppliers to meet a minimum standard of policies, plans and targets. The Victorian Government is leading the way with gender mandates for publicly funded projects of $20 million or more.

Targets and quotas are essential in keeping diversity on the agenda and encouraging women through the door. The other piece of the puzzle is creating an inclusive environment that enables women to stay in a business or sector once they arrive.

Tracy Keevers, the Executive Manager of People & Capability at pipeline infrastructure company, Interflow, shares her insight.

“True inclusion means removing the barriers preventing women from entering, staying, and thriving in a sector or an organisation,” she said. “The barriers might arise from a poor internal culture or a negative public perception of a particular industry. We need to consider everything from the behaviours and capability of leaders right down to having inclusive uniform policies and the right facilities for everyone.”

Behaviour-led culture change

The construction sector has been the most male-dominated industry in the country for many generations. As a result, it can have outdated masculine work methods that can make women feel unwelcome.

The sector has come a long way in recent years. However, work still needs to be done to rid workplaces of exclusive behaviours. Communicating the broader benefits of structural and cultural change is part of the solution for men and women. Another is equipping people with the tools to recognise biases and check attitudes undermining an inclusive culture.

“Respect at work policies are a great first step,” said Keevers. “Just as important is giving people the tools and training to be the best versions of themselves at work and home.”

Keevers also spoke about their success with positive behaviour-focused programs and language. It has given its people the confidence to respectfully call out what Interflow calls ‘below the waterline’ behaviour, knowing that the business will support them for doing so.

Making choices visible to increase female participation in the construction sector

If greater diversity in the industry is the key to building a more robust industry, how then do we attract women to roles in the first place?

One part of the solution is encouraging young women to join the industry or learn a trade from an early age. Perceptions of a sector or career, whether valid or mistaken, can be formed at an early age and influence decisions later in life.

A study has shown that school-aged girls aren’t aware of the opportunities the industry presents and can’t picture themselves in the job. Coupled with a lack of visible role models, working in construction isn’t on the radar for many school-aged girls. Programs exist to encourage young women into STEM fields, but their opportunities aren’t always visible within the construction sector.

Interflow’s Talent Acquisition Business Partner, Daniella Saumatua, says the opportunities for women in the construction and utility sectors are abundant.

“We have women in the field and on the tools, leading crews, and working as engineers,” she said. “We also have women in highly transferable roles between sectors, like in our people team, finance, safety and quality, marketing, IT, community relations, business development – you name it.”

Saumatua pointed out that the scale and variety within the sector mean people can choose their path. They can shape their career to suit their interests and expertise.

Removing the barriers to entry

Long hours, rigid work practices, and ever-changing job locations have long been associated with the construction sector. While these factors disadvantage everyone, they can exclude people with caring responsibilities, most often women.

The industry is becoming more attractive to everyone. This came with a growing trend towards flexible work options, paid parental leave for all parents, a push towards a guaranteed five-day work week, and a growing focus on wellbeing. Flexible working arrangements, like those provided by Interflow, enable more women to return to work after taking parental leave.

Interflow’s Georgina Hilder, Community Relations Manager, had her second child while working at Interflow and is currently on parental leave.

“Knowing there are flexible options available means I don’t need to choose between my career and my family,” said Hilder. “When women are reassured, they can balance a fulfilling career with their personal lives, and they will be more likely to return after taking time off to start a family.”

Inclusion begins with the hiring process

While platforms like WORK180 help women make informed choices about whom they work for, the hiring experience starts and ends with the organisation. Uplifting the capabilities of hiring managers is one way to support inclusive hiring practices. Honing interview skills and teaching leaders to recognise their biases can open the door to a more diverse range of candidates.

Other ways include having clear and transparent selection processes, writing compelling job ads that outline policies like flexible work options, and focussing on transferable skills.

“We’re shifting the conversation from ‘who is most qualified for the job?’ to ‘who is best for the team, who will add to the culture and bring new ideas?’” Saumatua said. “There are so many fulfilling opportunities within the construction and water sectors. When we work together to break down the barriers to entry, we’re giving women a chance to build a brighter future for themselves and their communities.”

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