Women in Construction: Victoria introduces mandatory gender quotas on major construction sites

women in construction

#women in engineering, procurement, tenders, Victoria,

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More women will enter Victoria’s construction industry thanks to the Victoria’s Government’s world-leading policy to improve gender equality in the building, infrastructure and civil engineering sectors.

The Government’s Building Equality Policy (BEP) is an Australian first and will disrupt gender stereotypes in the
country’s most male dominated industry. The BEP will apply to new government projects and mandates female representation in at least three per cent of each trade role, seven per cent of each non-trade position and 35 per cent of management, supervisor and specialist labour roles. In effect from 1 January 2022, the BEP also mandates that four per cent of labour hours for apprentices and trainees will be required to be performed by women.

The Government has invested $3.5 million to support the implementation of the policy and a further $1.5 million
for the delivery of medium and long-term actions from the Women in Construction Strategy 2019-22.

The new requirements are being introduced through Victoria’s Social Procurement Framework (SPF) for works
valued at $20 million or more over the life of the project. There will be a two-year transitional implementation period and action on non-compliance will kick in from January 2024.

Suppliers will be required to provide a project-specific GEAP (Gender Equality Action Plans) when submitting an expression of interest or tender for government-funded construction work.

Building equality through procurement

The BEP is comprised of three actions that seek to address the structural and cultural barriers women face. Suppliers are required to:

  • action 1 – meet project-specific gender equality targets
  • action 2 – engage women as apprentices and trainees
  • action 3 – implement Gender Equality Action Plans (GEAPs)

Application

The BEP applies to all entities defined as either a public body or a department under Section 3 of the Financial Management Act 1994. 

The BEP applies to all publicly funded construction projects valued at $20 million or more. The financial thresholds refer to the total budget allocated over the life of the project excluding GST and not the value of individual contracts.

The BEP applies to construction procurement activities that meet the financial threshold and commence from 1 January 2022. It will not apply retrospectively to projects that have already been contracted, or invitations to supply that have been issued before 1 January 2022.

Principal contractors have a contractual obligation to ensure participants in their supply chains are contributing to the overall targets across the project.

Victoria’s Building Industry Consultative Council (BICC) has worked collaboratively on the development of the policy
and will continue to provide support and guidance to help industry understand their obligations and comply.

Implementation, compliance and monitoring

The BEP will be implemented through the Social Procurement Framework (SPF). The targets and requirements in the BEP will be incorporated in SPF buyer guidance, model clauses/templates and invitations to supply for construction projects.

The Building Industry Consultative Council will provide a consultative forum for advice to government on the development of the procurement-related templates and guidelines.

Compliance and monitoring of the BEP will be overseen by the Social Procurement Assurance Function which was established to create employment and training outcomes for women and young people in all procurement activities valued at $20 million or more under the SPF.

Annual evaluation

To ensure the BEP keeps pace with the supply of women workers, an annual evaluation will be undertaken in 2022 and 2023. This will ensure that the changes to the targets and requirements in the BEP are realistic, achievable and reflect the needs of women.

Background

More women are active in the Victorian labour market now than in the past, but they make up only 2% of the workers in Australian construction. 

That is why Victoria’s Government has funded the development of Building Gender Equality: Victoria’s Women in Construction Strategy 2019-2022. The Strategy has been developed after extensive research and consultation with people in the industry and is overseen by the Building Industry Consultative Council (BICC) which is a high-level advisory council to the Minister for Industrial Relations. It is made up of employers, industry associations, unions and government. The BICC provides advice on economic and industrial relations issues affecting the building and construction industry.

Building gender equality

In December 2016 the Victorian Government launched the state’s first gender equality strategy, Safe and Strong: A Victorian Gender Equality Strategy (the GES). The GES sets out a framework for enduring and sustained action to prevent violence against women through gender equality.

The GES seeks to ensure that:

  • all Victorians live in a safe and equal society, have access to equal power, resources and opportunities, and are treated with dignity, respect and fairness
  • all Victorians recognise that gender equality is essential to economic prosperity and that gender inequality has significant economic cost
  • Victoria leads the way in gender equality with sustained, enduring and measurable action.

The GES recognises that work and economic security is a focal point for women’s equality. Women continue to be underrepresented in industries such as finance, construction, utilities, science and technical services. A failure to attract and equip women for careers in these industries leads to a loss of productivity gains, by not drawing on the skills and capabilities of a large sector of the labour force. It also entrenches occupational segregation, with potential to widen the gender pay gap and reduce economic security for women and their families.

To take further steps to implement the GES, the Victorian Government announced in June 2018 that it was developing Victoria’s Women in Construction Strategy, in partnership with the BICC.

The Strategy is designed to increase women’s participation in the trades and semi-skilled ‘blue-collar’ work in Victoria. In doing so, it will take another important step towards gender equality.

Women and construction: The story so far

The construction industry is often cited as the most male-dominated industry in Australia. There have been numerous attempts to increase female participation in the industry. However, rates of participation have not changed significantly since the 1980s.

The low levels of women’s employment in construction are explained by several factors:

  • women do not get or keep the jobs. While the number of female students enrolled in construction and trade courses at registered training organisations (RTOs) is rising, there is a severe discrepancy between the number of female students and the number of women employed in construction for a sustained period;
  • women are in less secure, low-paid positions. Women are more likely to be employed in ancillary roles. This contributes to the limitation of career progression for women in construction and affects the overall poor level of retention;
  • women are excluded and made to feel unwelcome. Rigid work practices, a traditionally masculine or sexist culture, exclusion, gendered violence, inadequate work facilities and equipment, and informal recruitment processes have all contributed to the low numbers of women working in construction.

Key learnings that underpin this Strategy are:

  • the Strategy must target barriers to attracting, recruiting and retaining women. Past strategies have failed to work on each of these three areas or to understand the interplay between them
  • the responsibility for fixing this cannot rest on the shoulders of the small number of women in the industry. Previous campaigns to rectify the low levels of female participation have failed because they have not included or accepted the contribution of men within the industry as part of the solution. The burden of higher recruitment and retention has been placed on women.

Building a strategy for change

Priority 1: Attract

How can we attract more women and girls to take up a trade or job within the construction industry?

Barriers

The barriers to women and girls seeking a career in the construction industry are:

  • failure to promote construction and trades as a viable career option to girls in schools
  • steering girls towards university rather than trades
  • lack of encouragement for girls interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)
  • fewer role models for girls
  • traditional views of men’s work and women’s work and gender stereotypes
  • rigid workplace practices and cultures of prejudice that exclude women and treat them as ‘other’.

Solutions

Strategies that will attract women and girls to the industry are:

  • schools giving more vocal and positive encouragement for girls about STEM subjects and trades
  • emphasis on unpacking the gender bias of careers counsellors and trades teachers in schools and Technical and Further Education (TAFE)
  • promotion of female role models to girls
  • funding of apprenticeships, training and education should be gender-sensitive. It should acknowledge the unique barriers women face gaining access to the construction industry, and identify practical solutions to overcome these barriers
  • a campaign to eliminate the attitudes that underpin the culture of gender inequality, involving all construction workers – including managers and employers.

Barriers to attracting women and girls to the construction industry

Impact of schools and vocational training

Young women are actively discouraged from or have little to no exposure to, the construction industry while at school. Careers counselling is highly gendered, encouraging young women to undertake a university degree rather than a trade. 

Additionally, students are also filtered by gender to excel in humanities if they are female or STEM subjects if they are male. The assumption that women are not capable of, or interested in, STEM subjects. Coupled with a devaluing of vocational education and training (VET) in schools, this means few women are attracted to the construction industry and trade-based further education.

Gendered assumptions

There is an underlying assumption that trade work is ‘dirty, dangerous and heavy’. More traditional or outdated views about femininity and women’s work lead to a perception that trade work is not suitable for women.These traditional notions of femininity and masculinity have been socialised within careers counsellors and teachers, often leading to an unconscious bias against encouraging women to pursue a trade career in the construction industry.

However, when counsellors and teachers know someone who works in a trade-based industry and are more familiar with it, they are far more likely to encourage men and women (though still men in greater numbers) to pursue trade-based further education.

Role models

There are few female role models in the construction industry for girls, which adds to the difficulty of attracting women to the industry More vocal and positive promotion of the industry within a school-based careers education environment is needed to attract more women.

Strategies to increase women’s engagement

Simply making the industry more attractive to women will not result in a sustainable increase in female participation. Efforts are needed to improve the retention of women workers.

Apprenticeships

Any effort to implement strategies and allocate funding to apprenticeships, training and education should not be gender-neutral, as this can entrench the existing gender bias. Programs need to be gender-sensitive, acknowledging the unique barriers women face in gaining access to the construction industry.

Culture

Workplace cultures of sexism, gendered stereotypes and gendered violence are a barrier to engaging and retaining women workers.9 Solutions have previously been recommended to overcome these barriers. They have included campaigns to eradicate the attitudes that underpin the culture of gender inequality, involving all construction workers – including managers and employers. Such a campaign can only be effective if men see they will also benefit from it. Any successful campaign should include roles for men as change-makers, while acknowledging that many are also perpetrators and will need education.

Strategies to increase women’s uptake of roles are less likely to be successful without concerted efforts to educate the existing workforce around gender equality.

Without this, women recruited as a part of affirmative measures are broadly regarded as less qualified than their male counterparts and undermined in their roles.

Rigid work practices

The male-dominated environment of construction work adheres to a ‘male breadwinner’ model. This results in rigid workplace hours, practices and pay that do not include those with caring responsibilities – most often women.

The industry’s failure to accommodate the family needs of employees has acted as a barrier to women’s entry into construction. Programs designed for women returning to work after raising children, caring or moving from income support would be one way to attract women to the industry. This would align with the existing data that shows most women enrolled in trade-based education are mature age.

Attraction

Points of intervention in the Strategy:

1.1 Break down the barriers that prevent girls and women considering trades and other roles within the industry. Target points are:

  • school careers counsellors
  • providers of VET and Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) courses
  • families of students.

1.2 Develop more transparent pathways for women to enter the construction industry and develop a career.

1.3 Establish pathways for women to move from low and semi-skilled roles within the industry through to skilled and trade roles.

Priority 2: Recruit

How can recruitment practices be improved to help more women obtain trade and semi-skilled roles in the industry?

Barriers

Barriers to women being recruited to roles in the industry include:

  • employers hiring through the traditional ‘pipeline’ for employment – for example RTOs and informal networks that women do not have ready access to
  • employers’ metric of cultural fit when hiring workers, which often excludes women
  • most male workers are hired via informal recruitment processes, while most women workers are hired via formal processes, which are more strenuous and time-consuming
  • discrimination in hiring processes, including reluctance to hire women based on the belief that construction work is too difficult for women or that they will require parental leave
  • lack of commitment to hiring women by middle management and other workers.

Solutions

Strategies that will lead to more women being recruited to roles in the industry:

  • a more independent and formalised hiring process, including an audit of metrics such as cultural fit to ensure they are not exclusionary or gendered
  • programs that provide targeted support to women apprentices seeking employment in their trade
  • increase the prominence and visibility of female role models in the industry
  • a holistic approach to cultural change builds support throughout the entire workforce.

Barriers to recruiting women in construction

The recruitment of women in the construction industry shares many of the challenges that apply to attracting women workers. There is clearly interest from women in participating in trades, as evidenced from first-hand accounts of tradeswomen and the rising rates of female enrolment in trade-based education. However, the low numbers of women employed in the industry highlights a challenge in the recruitment of women in this sector.

The lack of opportunity to participate in trade-based education at the school level has already been touched upon as a challenge for engaging women workers, but it also presents a barrier to the recruitment process. Many employers within the construction industry hire through the ‘pipeline’, which refers to traditional educational paths such as RTOs. Most women enrolled in trade-based education are mature students, having had their participation in the industry delayed rather than supported by their career counsellors and teachers.

Some employers value the maturity that women can often bring to a work site. However, there is also evidence that some employers are reluctant to hire mature apprentices as they are required to pay them an award rate, rather than an apprentice rate, which results in a higher labour cost.

Employer bias and cultural fit

Workplace culture also affects the recruitment of women. Many employers cite cultural fit as a key attribute when recruiting, which is rarely assessed or updated, and often excludes women.

Cultural fit means hiring workers who are like those already in the workforce, which in construction often means men. Other cited attitudes of employers include:

  • bias in recruitment and selection processes
  • the belief that construction work is too dangerous for women
  • the expectation that women will leave the workforce to have children and that training them would be a ‘waste’ of time and resources.

Recruitment practices

Informal recruitment processes have been cited as a barrier to women being recruited. Women are more likely to be recruited through formal recruitment processes, while men are more likely to gain employment through informal, internal networks. A process of male sponsorship and an industry-wide culture of ‘picking your team’ sometimes sees women overlooked for employment or career progression. Employment through formal recruitment processes also takes longer and requires more tenacity, which affects women adversely, and can add to the absence of women applying for construction jobs.

A more independent and formalised hiring process would have a positive impact on the number of women recruited to the construction industry. This should include a review of ‘cultural fit’ to determine whether it is a gendered and exclusionary process. Investment in programs such as the Australian Apprenticeships Access Program would provide an opportunity to encourage women to commence work in construction or retrain to become trade-qualified.

Affirmative strategies

Financial aid and study scholarships for women could encourage more women to enrol in trade-based education, leading to more recruitment by employers. However, further enrolment in trade-based education alone will not aid the increase of women’s employment in the construction industry.

Gender sensitive policies and action plans for recruitment and retention of women, from apprenticeships to graduate employment programs at all levels, must be considered to achieve meaningful change.21 Some affirmative action initiatives have been trialled in the past, but the literature suggests they did not lead to sustainable increases in women workers within the construction industry. A more holistic approach to cultural change on every worksite is also needed.

Beyond the commitment from the top

Initiatives to achieve gender equality within the recruitment process have previously been unsuccessful due to the lack of commitment by middle managers and workers. While there is often a statement of support from senior management, the failure to build this support throughout the entire workforce leads to the perpetuation of a culture that excludes women. Strategies to overcome exclusionary recruitment processes need support from workers, managers and employers if they are to succeed.

Role models

Another positive strategy for recruiting women into construction has been the prominence and visibility of female role models within the industry. Being able to see women’s involvement and their ability to excel has a positive impact on the willingness of other women to enter the recruitment process. This extends to female mentorship and networks, which assist in the retention of women within the construction industry.

Recruitment

Points of intervention in the Strategy:

2.1 Build the capacity of major builders, subcontractors and labour hire operators to attract and recruit women into the full range of trade and semi-skilled roles within the construction industry.

Priority 2: Retain

How do we retain women within the industry?

Barriers

The barriers to women staying in roles within the industry include:

  • An industry and workplace culture of prejudice that results in numerous incidents of gendered violence
  • Women report feeling unsafe and uncomfortable on the job
  • Rigid workplace practices such as excessive work hours, inflexible work arrangements and a lack of consideration for caring responsibilities
  • Occupational health and safety hazards, such as inappropriate equipment and clothing, the lack of adequate bathroom facilities and physicality of work.

Solutions

Strategies to assist in the retention of women in the industry include:

  • Widespread industry, workplace and social change to abolish gendered violence at work and traditional ideas of women’s work
  • Introduction of job-sharing, flexible work arrangements, provision of childcare, and changes to other workplace practices to accommodate caring responsibilities
  • Women’s networks for tradeswomen, mentoring programs, and a greater number and visibility of female role models in the construction industry.

But:

  • Not without the support of employers, managers and the wider workforce, as part of a widespread, long-term campaign to affect social and workplace culture
  • Implementing a strong accountability mechanism that allows women and men (from the construction industry) to report and provide feedback on progress towards achieving systemic cultural change.

Barriers to retaining women in roles within the construction industry

There is clear desire and willingness from women to work in the construction industry, which is evident from increasing female enrolment in trade-based education, and the first-hand accounts of tradeswomen. Many women find great joy and satisfaction in engaging in meaningful work, and appreciate security of employment and remuneration. Many would recommend a career in construction and trades to other women.

However, the existing literature shows that, while this job satisfaction certainly exists, it is eroded by a variety of negative experiences entrenched within this male-dominated industry.

Gendered violence

Women workers often experience incidents of gendered violence while employed in the industry. Gendered violence refers to actions and behaviours that express power inequalities between women and men and cause physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm. It is violence that is perpetrated against women because they are women.

It also includes violence against those who do not conform to dominant gender stereotypes or those who don’t conform to socially accepted gender roles.

Rates of gendered violence at work are particularly high for women workers in the construction industry and are a powerful driver for women to leave their jobs.

There are several commonly occurring behaviours within the workplace that negatively affect women’s physical and mental health, including:

  • exclusion and ‘othering’ by workmates and managers
  • the expectation to manage increased aggression from male mentors
  • open resentment of women workers’ presence on site and a consistent undermining of women’s skills and qualifications
  • being assigned feminised tasks such as office work and being denied opportunities to learn practical skills on site
  • sexist comments, sexual innuendo and the display or sharing of pornographic images 

This behaviour manifests in a culture that values a traditionally masculine stereotype and devalues women and those who do not conform to this stereotype. This ‘man’s world’ culture serves not only to limit the engagement and recruitment of women workers in construction, but also to drive them from the industry and leave their jobs. This has been cited as a cause for lower completion rates of apprenticeships for women than their male counterparts.

Tradeswomen have recorded a lack of respect from their male colleagues and managers, including an overwhelming sense that they need to prove their worth and perform ‘better than anyone else’.

They report being overlooked for contracts and other employment opportunities because they are women, and high rates of sexual harassment at work.

Other health and safety hazards

Other factors lead to women feeling unsafe and uncomfortable in their jobs, such as failure to provide adequate equipment and other infrastructure, including bathroom facilities, sanitary bins and appropriate clothing. Not only does this present a physical occupational health and safety risk, but it also negatively affects a women worker’s sense of belonging and worth in the workplace. 

Tradeswomen surveyed by the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia have also spoken about occupational health and safety hazards, such as the presence of toxic chemicals and its impact on having children and the physicality of manual labour when working alone.

Rigid workplace practices

Some women leave their jobs in construction due to rigid workplace practices, including:

  • inflexible hours and work arrangements
  • an employer’s unwillingness to account for caring responsibilities
  • a lack of access to paid parental leave or return-to-work provisions at a comparable position or pay scale
  • an expectation to work excessive hours to prove one’s worth. 

The negative effect of rigid workplace practices on women workers are cited in several reports. Studies have found that women report high levels of dissatisfaction with work/life balance in the construction industry, and emotional exhaustion. While these factors are present in other sectors, they are considered particularly pressing in construction and contribute to women leaving their jobs.

Several practical strategies have been recommended to address these structural barriers to women staying in construction jobs, including the introduction of job- sharing, the standardisation of work hours and enforcing a workplace culture that does not tolerate biased attitudes or overwork. A greater deal of flexibility in hours worked has proven to be a successful strategy in retaining women in construction, although much of that flexibility is found only in construction businesses owned and operated by women. The provision of childcare for parents and carers would help to retain more women workers.

Women’s networks and mentoring

One strategy that has proven effective in increasing retention of women workers is facilitating women’s networks and female mentorship within the industry.

Women workers have identified a positive feeling of family and camaraderie at work as a reason for staying in the industry and contributing to their job satisfaction.

This is amplified by their participation in women’s networks. Such networks range from those organised by employers, or the relevant union, such as the Electrical Trades Union or the Construction Forestry Mining Maritime and Energy Union Women’s Networks, or by independent women workers sharing their experiences across the country, such as the National Association of Women in Construction or Supporting and Linking Tradeswomen (SALT). These networks and the female mentorship programs often organised through RTOs, provide a level of support and community that can often be lacking in male-dominated workplaces, where a woman may be the only female worker on site.

A greater number of female role models within the industry coupled with mentoring and networking programs would contribute to a culture of support and community for women construction workers.

Mass cultural change

Existing literature cautions that strategies that place the responsibility for change on women cannot be used without also building the support of employers, managers and the wider workforce.

Overall the most commonly cited strategy for retaining women in the industry is a widespread, long-term campaign to affect social and workplace culture. This would seek to abolish the notions of traditional men’s and women’s work and the devaluation of women, as well as raising awareness about gendered violence at work.

Legislative measures to achieve gender equity, such as audits and targets for gender parity, or the adoption of flexible workplace practices and anti-discrimination policies to comply with their legislative obligations, are often not enforced or monitored systematically.

Research has found that these types of measures do not make a significant difference to the lived work experience of women in construction, or result in an increase in the number of women workers. Research has found that formal institutional rules are inherently gendered, and that “a lack of robustness and revisability in policy design is a key factor influencing the lack of progress in improving women’s representation and gender equality in the construction sector”.

Case studies of two major Australian construction companies found that their policies were driven by business decisions such as profit and skills shortages, not values. Company policies aimed at increasing gender equality will have minimal impact if there is no robust monitoring system in place that allows for a formalised analysis processes and feedback loop to affect positive change in the workplace culture.

Research suggests that successful strategies include women and men in the policy-setting process, rather than imposing schemes from the top down. This approach leads to stronger accountability mechanisms, reporting and feedback processes.

Retention

Points of intervention in the Strategy

3.1 Create a culture of gender equality within the construction industry

3.2 Provide opportunities for women to create communities of practice and shared experience

3.3 Map the wellbeing of women employed in trades and semi-skilled roles in the industry

3.4 Address the lack of amenities for women workers and rigid work practices that exclude those with caring responsibilities (men and women) from having careers in the industry

Procurement: Leveraging for change

Changing culture and practice within the industry to help women feel encouraged and safe will take time. Through the Strategy, the construction industry (and those who influence decisions about who enters it, including schools and vocational education providers) is encouraged to make changes to increase women’s participation in the trades and semi-skilled blue-collar workforce in Victoria. This Strategy is an important step towards gender equality in this State.

Procurement standards and practices can provide incentives to participants within the industry to make changes in line with the Strategy.

4.1 Use procurement practices to promote gender equality

Source: © Copyright State Government of Victoria (access full version here)

Source: © Copyright State Government of Victoria (view the full Media Release here)



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