Why Australia is struggling to get more women into engineering and construction

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gender equality, NAWIC, women in construction, women in engineering,

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Australia has a very low number of women studying and choosing engineering or construction as a career path.

Australia is currently experiencing an acute shortage of infrastructure workforce that includes engineering and construction staff. According to the latest report by Infrastructure Australia, in 2023, the lack of a skilled workforce will be the single biggest issue faced by construction companies in Australia facing a shortage of 214,000 skilled workers.

While women comprise 48% of Australia’s workforce, only 16% are university-level engineering students, and 13% are working engineers (Source: Engineers Australia).

According to United Nations, women remain a minority in both STEM education and careers, representing only 28% of engineering graduates, 22% of artificial intelligence workers, and less than one-third of tech sector employees globally.  Globally, it is estimated that only 20% of engineering graduates are women, and women of colour still comprise less than 2% of all engineering professionals.

“Stereotypes about who is, and isn’t, well suited to STEM play a major role in discouraging girls from entering these fields. These beliefs become a self-perpetuating cycle: without encouragement in tech fields, girls end up lacking necessary knowledge—thus making them less likely to express interest.”

The main reasons why there are so few women in engineering and construction in Australia

Below is the list of main reasons why there are so few women in the engineering and construction fields.

Social and cultural norms: Society has traditionally associated engineering and construction jobs with men. This cultural stereotype may discourage women from pursuing careers in these fields, leading to a lack of diversity in the workforce.

Educational pathways: Women may not be encouraged to pursue education in STEM fields from an early age, leading to fewer women enrolling in engineering and construction-related programs. This can create a pipeline problem, where there are fewer women graduating with the necessary skills and qualifications to enter these fields.

Lack of female role models: The underrepresentation of women in engineering and construction means that there are fewer role models for young women to look up to and aspire to be like. This can make it difficult for women to envision themselves in these careers.

Bias and discrimination: Women may face bias and discrimination in the hiring process, as well as in the workplace, which can make it difficult for them to succeed and advance in their careers.

Work environment: The work environment in engineering and construction can be male-dominated, with a culture that may not be inclusive or welcoming to women. This can create an unwelcoming and uncomfortable environment for women, leading to high turnover rates and low retention. Long working hours and lack of flexibility makes it also difficult for women to balance their work with domestic and parental duties (in Australia women spend 64.4% of their average weekly working time on unpaid care work compared to 36.1% for men, source: WGEA).

Gender pay gap: Data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows women working full time in the professional, scientific and technical services in Australia experience a gender pay gap of 22 per cent, higher than the average across all industries.

The motherhood penalty in STEM jobs starts before women become mothers.

Recruitment bias: women in STEM who have taken a career break to look after children often struggle to re-enter employment due to unconscious recruitment bias.

Girls are discouraged from engineering and construction careers early on

The root cause of low numbers of women entering engineering relates to influences in early childhood. Both parents and teachers play an important role in reinforcing stereotypes regarding ‘what boys are good at’ and ‘what girls are good at.’

Societal stereotypes often portray boys as being naturally inclined towards careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, while girls are encouraged to pursue careers in fields such as nursing, teaching, or social work. These stereotypes can limit girls’ interest in STEM fields, despite their ability and interest in these subjects, and discourage them from pursuing careers in these fields.

Australia’s 2019–20 Youth in STEM survey by YouthInsight found that parents and teachers were the greatest influencer groups of young people’s education and career decisions.

One of the key findings of the report was that across all STEM subjects, where educators perceived a gendered difference in confidence it was heavily skewed towards boys. This skew was most prominent in engineering with almost two-thirds of educators (61%) believing boys are more confident than girls.

Educators reported boys to be more confident than girls in:

  • engineering – 61% believed boys are more confident, 2% believed girls are more confident
  • sport – 53% believed boys are more confident, 1% believed girls are more confident
  • technology – 40% believed boys are more confident, 3% believed girls are more confident
  • mathematics – 33% believed boys are more confident, 7% believed girls are more confident
  • science – 29% believed boys are more confident, 5% believed girls are more confident.

Women in Engineering Report by Engineers Australia

Similar findings were published in the Engineers Australia Women in Engineering report showing that the most significant reason girls don’t choose to study engineering is that they don’t know what engineering is and what engineers do.

Of the 1400 respondents involved in the study, a whopping 90 per cent of women in non-engineering fields did not consider it a valid career option. Other barriers include the perception of engineering as too ‘male-dominated’, challenging or dull, and girls not feeling supported to do well in STEM subjects from as early as primary school.

“We need to target four main groups: schoolchildren, their parents, teachers and career advisors. If parents aren’t aware of the breadth of opportunities in engineering, they’re less likely to make their kids aware of it,” says Jane MacMaster.

Key research findings

  • Lack of familiarity is the single top stated reason for never considering engineering
  • 90 per cent of women in non-engineering fields either briefly or never considered an engineering
  • Concerns around not enjoying or being good enough at maths and physics are also prominent
  • Most common female perceptions of engineering are ‘male dominated’ and ‘challenging.’
  • Women are less likely to associate engineering with positive attributes such as ‘respected’, ‘impactful’, ‘creative’, ‘fulfilling’ and ‘exciting.’
  • There is a strong correlation between familiarity with engineering and consideration of study 65 per cent who were familiar considered studying it compared to only 11 per cent that was not at all familiar

NAWIC survey shows gender-based adversity in construction

Construction is Australia’s number one most male-dominated industry with only 12% of the workforce identifying as female and with less than 2% of on-site roles occupied by women.

In May last year, NAWIC (The National Association of Women in Construction) published the results of the inaugural State of the Industry survey. Among the findings, a massive, (yet sadly unsurprising), 75% of respondents said they have experienced gender-based adversity within their construction career.

The survey, which was sent out to all NAWIC members, gathered data around job positions and salary ranges, working hours and industry sentiment. It also asked for responses to questions around equal opportunity, gender-based adversity and workplace experiences.

Alongside 75% of respondents saying they have experienced gender-based adversity within their construction career, 50% agreed or strongly agreed that they have received inappropriate or unwanted attention from colleagues. While 43% disagreed with the statement ‘In my industry all genders have the same opportunities and career advancements.”

Overall however things are improving, with 83% of respondents also stating that they agree or strongly agree that the role of women within the industry is changing for the better.

In order to achieve an equitable construction industry where women fully participate, NAWIC’s goal is to drive changes that will aid in the increased recruitment, retention, and further vocational development of women within all facets of the construction industry. This includes a focus on advocacy, education, connection and community.

The gender pay gap in STEM and construction is too high

The gender pay gap is the difference in the earnings of men and women, expressed as a proportion of men’s earnings. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, gender pay gap measures reflect the various social and economic factors affecting earnings and earning capacity of men and women (e.g. paid hours worked, occupation, industry, pay-setting methods, educational attainment, working arrangements, discrimination, and many more factors). It is not a measure of gender pay equality or equal pay.

Australia’s national gender pay gap is 13.3 per cent and is the lowest on record.

For every dollar on average men earned, women earned 87 cents. That’s $253.50 less than men each week. Over the course of one year, that adds up to $13,182 (Source: Workplace Gender Equality Agency).

In November 2022, Western Australia had the widest gender pay gap at 22.1% and Tasmania had the smallest gender pay gap at 6%.

In 2021, the gap between women’s and men’s pay in STEM industries was $26,784, or 18%. This was slightly smaller than in 2020 when the pay gap was $28,994 (19%). In 2016, the gender pay gap, full-time total remuneration (which includes discretionary pay), was 22%, 4 percentage points higher than the 2021 result.

In 2021, the architectural, engineering, and technical services had one of the largest pay gaps at 24% (Source: Australian Government, Department of Industry, Science and Resources). In 2022, the construction industry had the largest gender pay gap of any industry in Australia at 30.6% with women receiving $6.94 for every $10 earned by their male counterparts. In 2023,

The Motherhood Penalty

Motherhood Penalty is a term coined by sociologists describing the systematic disadvantage that women encounter in the workplace when they become mothers, in terms of pay, perceived competence, and benefits compared to other workers (Source: World Economic Forum).

The research from Australia’s Federal Treasury Department finds that women’s earnings are reduced by an average of 55% in the first 5 years of parenthood. This ‘motherhood penalty’ has a significant and long-term impact on women’s earnings and career opportunities.

In Australia, women are three times more likely to be working part-time than men. Many of these women are working mothers taking time out of the workforce to look after children. The value of unpaid childcare work is around $345 billion, which makes it almost three times larger than the financial and insurance sector combined. The burden of providing this care falls disproportionately on women. For every hour of unpaid care work done by men, women do one hour and 46 minutes (Source: WGEA).

Interestingly enough, in STEM careers women face the motherhood penalty before they actually become mothers! This is referred to as the ‘specter of motherhood’, the term coined by Sarah Thébaud and Catherine Taylor, both UC Santa Barbara associate professors of sociology. Their study The Specter of Motherhood: Culture and the Production of Gendered Career Aspirations in Science and Engineering showed that many women give up on their STEM careers due to being told that academic career and family are incompatible.

The “specter of motherhood” refers to the societal expectation that women will prioritize their roles as mothers above all else. This expectation can affect women’s career opportunities and choices, as well as their personal lives.

The specter of motherhood can manifest in several ways, including:

  1. Employment discrimination: Women who are perceived as potential mothers may be subject to employment discrimination, such as being passed over for job opportunities, promotions, or training programs.
  2. Limited career options: Women may be discouraged from pursuing certain career paths or roles that are seen as less compatible with motherhood, such as demanding or high-pressure jobs.
  3. Career interruption: Women may take time off from work to have and care for children, which can result in a loss of seniority, pay, and professional development opportunities.
  4. Social expectations: Women may face pressure to conform to traditional gender roles as caregivers and nurturers, which can limit their ability to pursue their own interests and goals.

Is anything changing to attract more women to engineering and construction?

The Australian Government and industry bodies are trying to attract and retain more women in engineering and construction roles.

Building Equality Policy BEP

In January 2022, the state of Victoria introduced Building Equality Policy (BEP), a world-leading policy to improve gender equality in the building, infrastructure, and civil engineering sectors.

The BEP mandates female representation in at least 3% of each trade role, 7% of each non-trade position and 35% of management, supervisor and specialist labour roles. In effect from 1 January 2022, the BEP also mandates that 4% of labour hours for apprentices and trainees will be required to be performed by women.

Source: 9 News Australia

The BEP applies to all publicly funded construction projects valued at $20 million or more and 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)

Culture Standard in Construction

Culture in Construction is an initiative of the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce (CICT)—comprising the Australian Constructors Association, representing the nation’s largest construction firms, the Governments of New South Wales and Victoria and Australia’s leading workplace researchers.

An Australian-first Culture Standard will be piloted at NSW construction sites to improve facilities, and working conditions and boost the number of women in construction.

The pilots include measures such as:

  • No offensive material on site
  • Ensuring appropriate amenities are provided, including toilets for women, sanitary bins and safe changerooms
  • Identifying and disclosing gender pay gaps across roles, as well as implementing plans to reduce gender pay gaps
  • Providing mental health first aiders on site
  • Setting clear targets for the appointment of women.

NSW Government is working with industry to achieve a target of 15% of women on construction sites by 2030.

The new $10m Industry Innovation Program will be hosted on the NSW Government’s Women in Construction website, and will be a one-stop-shop for women and girls interested in learning more about the industry. Find out more about Women in Construction.

The Industry Innovation Program will support initiatives that increase and retain women working in the construction industry, including:

  • Creating inclusive workplace cultures, by improving employee wellbeing and supporting flexible working arrangements.
  • Increasing the number of women entering and staying in the industry.
  • Supporting female leadership and employees.

How can you help with increasing the number of women in Engineering and Construction?

Increasing the number of girls in engineering and construction fields requires a multifaceted approach that addresses a range of issues, from societal stereotypes to institutional barriers. Here are some strategies that can help:

  1. Early exposure: encourage girls to explore STEM fields from a young age, by offering them opportunities to participate in STEM-related activities and clubs, attending STEM camps, and providing access to mentors who can help guide them in these fields.
  2. Role models: highlight the achievements and experiences of successful women in engineering and construction fields, and make sure girls have access to female role models who can inspire and mentor them.
  3. Addressing stereotypes: challenge gender stereotypes and biases that reinforce the idea that these fields are “masculine” and not suited for girls.
  4. Education and training: provide high-quality education and training in engineering and construction fields that is inclusive and accessible to girls, and offers the support they need to succeed.
  5. Networking: encourage girls to build networks and connections in these fields by participating in professional organizations, attending events, and networking with peers and professionals.
  6. Industry support: partner with industry organizations and employers to create opportunities for girls in engineering and construction fields, such as internships, job shadowing, and mentoring programs.
  7. Parental support: engage parents in supporting their daughters’ interests in engineering and construction fields, and provide resources and information to help them understand the opportunities and challenges in these fields.
  8. Recruitment: partner with organizations such as STEM Returners to access a pool of STEM professional looking to re-start their career, use inclusive language in your advertising, implement blind hiring practices, focus on skills and qualifications.

Source: Engineers Australia

Source: © NSW Government 2022

Source: © State of New South Wales

Source: NAWIC Media Release

Source: Culture in Construction

Source: Removing the motherhood penalty, WGEA

Source: Fitzsimmons, T.W., Yates, M. S., & Callan, V. (2018). Hands Up for Gender Equality: A Major
Study into Confidence and Career Intentions of Adolescent Girls and Boys
. Brisbane, Qld:
AIBE Centre for Gender Equality in the Workplace – The University of Queensland.

Source: Labour Force, Australia, January 2022, cat. no. 6202.0, Table 18. Labour force status for 15-64 year olds by Sex – Trend, Seasonally adjusted and Original, viewed 22 February 2022, available: https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/labour/employment-and-unemployment/labour-forceaustralia/jan-2022#data-downloads

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