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Why women are staying away from construction

Women in construction: a sight more common a decade ago
Women in construction: a sight more common a decade ago

After years of trying to break into construction women are giving up and leaving the industry, frustrated by its rusted on practices. They’re citing long work hours, a lack of flexible parental leave, tolerance of sexism and informal recruitment processes favouring men as just some of the reasons the construction industry remains the most male-dominated sector in Australia.

Research from the University of NSW found that in 2016 women accounted for just 12 per cent of the construction industry workforce – a 17 per cent decrease over the past decade – and just 14 per cent of professional and managerial positions were held by women.

To work out the reasons for such low participation rates, UNSW researchers “shadowed” 44 construction professionals to observe work practices and conducted 61 interviews regarding career pathways.

“Rigid work practices” were found to be substantial barriers for women in terms of career progression, which included long work hours and the expectation of total availability, an in practice lack of flexible parental leave, the tolerance of sexism in the workplace, and accepted informal recruitment processes that favoured men over women.

The findings have been compiled into a report, Construction Industry: Demolishing gender structures, which was launched at the Australian Human Rights Commission in Sydney on Wednesday morning.

Key recommendations in the report include:

  • stopping the rewarding and promoting of excessive hours, and putting an end to shaming those who don’t comply
  • demonstrating a “no tolerance” approach to sexism in the workplace and on site, including in regards to sexist drawings, wording and behaviour
  • recognising, recruiting and celebrating agile and diverse career pathways and career breaks
  • making recruitment/promotion processes and criteria more transparent

There also needs to be “ownership” of gender diversity issues amongst management.

“Our research found that business leaders and managers had a varied degree of understanding, readiness and ownership of gender diversity,” lead researcher Natalie Galea said.

“Despite project leaders and line managers playing a central role in the careers of employees there is reluctance to take responsibility for gender diversity initiatives.”

Chief investigator professor Louise Chappell said the report had gotten “under the skin” of the gender equality issues in the sector.

“The report shows that not only do women professionals in construction fare badly because of existing work practices, but so do men,” Professor Chappell said.

“Reforming expectations about time spent on the job and family responsibilities will make construction a more attractive industry for both men and women.”

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