Insights into women’s experience of working in NSW’s construction industry

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Despite women making up over half of New South Wales’ population, their presence in the construction sector remains startlingly low at just 13%.

Encouraging more women to join the construction industry in Australia is vital to help address the current and future severe skills shortages.

With a projected shortfall of 100,000 skilled construction workers by 2030 in NSW, the declining numbers of women in this industry (nationally from 17% in 2006 to 12.9% in 2020) are concerning.

Two recent reports delve into the roles and experiences of women within NSW’s construction sector, offering strategies to boost female participation in the industry and tackle the systemic obstacles impacting their construction careers.

About Women in Construction (WIC) Program

The NSW Government is investing $20.2 million in the Women in Construction (WIC) program over three years. The program aims to attract and retain more women into the construction industry, with a focus on increasing the number of women in trade and non-traditional roles. 

The WIC Program has five objectives: 

  • An increased number of women are working in the construction sector, ideally in trade and non-traditional roles. 
  • There is a pipeline of women educating/training to meet demand. 
  • Increased workplace flexibility in the construction sector. 
  • Culture change on construction sites so that the construction industry is one that people want to work in. 
  • Partnership between government and industry to achieve this goal. 

Key findings of the WIC Survey

A Women in Construction industry survey was undertaken in July 2023 with participation from 593 construction workers and 313 construction businesses. The results of the survey have been published in a Survey Report. Key finding of the survey:

  • Attracting/retaining appropriately skilled staff was identified by respondents as one of the top two
    business challenges.
  • The top workforce challenges were identified as lack of work‑life balance (57%) and a lack of flexible working hours (43%). These challenges were identified consistently by both men and women.
  • Businesses estimated that on average the number of women employed increased by 13.8% in the last year, double that of men (6.5%). In an absolute sense, the number of men in the industry increased more than it did for women, however, in a relative sense, the pool of women in the industry has grown faster than for men, albeit from a smaller base. This suggests there is positive momentum for more women entering the sector.
  • Responses from women in the workforce survey indicated less satisfaction working in the construction industry than men, though overall sentiment was still positive, with 69% of women reporting satisfaction in the industry (compared to 77% of men). 70% of women said they would remain in the industry (compared to 77% men). Interestingly, responses from men under 40 indicated lower average satisfaction working in the construction industry than women, with only a 64% providing a score of 7 or above.
  • Both women and men were less likely to recommend the construction industry to female family/friends than to male family/friends. This suggests that the industry is still perceived as a male-dominated sector.
  • On a five‑point scale, 57% of women selected the top two ratings when asked to rate the extent to which working in the construction industry helps them achieve their work‑related/personal goals, this was significantly lower than for men (67%). 18% of women respondents were significantly more likely than men (10%) to select the ‘Can’t say/Don’t have any real goals/ aspirations at the moment’ option. This suggests there is an opportunity for the industry to help women in their industry formulate their goals and provide the means to achieve those goals.

The survey on the Women in Construction Program and the broader industry highlights several key opportunities for improvement:

  1. Universal Policy Repositioning: Shift from “female/family-friendly” to inclusive policies for all, enhancing workplace flexibility, parental leave, and diversity.
  2. Business Benefits of Wellbeing Policies: Encourage the development of policies focused on employee wellbeing and engagement, noting a current lack of policy progression.
  3. Support for Residential and Small Firms: Address the gap in policy adoption between smaller businesses and larger contractors by fostering engagement with the residential sector, possibly through partnerships.
  4. Promote Career Advancement: Offer clearer career paths and opportunities for women, especially in roles traditionally dominated by females like traffic control.
  5. Advocate for Equal Pay: Collaborate with industry bodies and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) to address and close the pay gap.
  6. Boost Program Visibility: Increase awareness of the Women in Construction Program beyond LinkedIn, utilizing campaigns that reach site-based employees and students, despite recent advancements like the launch of a LinkedIn page, grant issuance, and support for major infrastructure projects.

Source: Infrastructure NSW

Building Commission NSW Women in Construction Report

This report explores the experience and roles of women in the construction industry in NSW, based on insights gained from survey data, interviews and literature reviews.

It provides informed recommendations to increase the number of women in the industry and address some of the systemic challenges they face in their construction careers. It includes feedback from 1,792 survey respondents, 36 individual interviews, and 9 focus groups.

Representation of women in the industry

  • 46% of Tiers 2 and 3 companies have fewer than 5% of women, compared to only 9% in Tier 1. 
  • 35% of Tiers 2 and 3 companies don’t have any women.

Common barriers of entry for women

  • 42% of male employers perceive physical demands of the work as too high compared to 13% of the female employers.
  • A lack of exposure to construction related fields and an absence of marketing of roles to woman are common reasons why women do not consider the industry.
  • Women feel that it is difficult to get a role in the industry without personal connections.
  • Employers are reluctant to hire women in unskilled roles.

Women’s experience in the industry 

  • 71% of women who left the industry across Tiers 2 and 3 have experienced discrimination based on their gender.
  • 1 in 2 women in Tiers 2 and 3 report experiencing sexual harassment at work

Why women leave the industry

Top 3 reasons women are considering leaving the industry in Tier 2 and 3 include:

  1. Difficulty balancing work and other responsibilities 
  2. Lack of promotion or career opportunities 
  3. Gender-based differential treatment 

Underestimating women’s abilities

The survey found male employers potentially often underestimate women’s abilities, with 42% thinking that the work is too physically demanding for them – yet only 13% of female employers feel the same.

47% of male employers also believe that women leave due to the physical demands of the job, while only 17% of female employers held this opinion. Interestingly, the physical demands of the profession is actually the top reason that men leave the industry, other than retirement – but it is not a
major reason why women leave.

Career development

In relation to career development, a significant hurdle for women is the lack of a long-term career
path. Many report not having female role models in senior positions or knowing of women in
roles they aspired to achieve within their organisations or network, and this leaves them feeling
discouraged at the prospects of developing their career.

These concerns intensify when women decide to have children, as there is a general sense from
women in the industry that once you become a mother, your career trajectory stalls. This belief is
reinforced by what women see around them in the workforce, and the conversations and language
used around the impact of motherhood on career prospects.

Employer challenges, priorities and likelihood to hire women

The pressures and challenges stemming from the competitive and complex nature of the construction industry often lead small and medium-sized employers to be less likely to hire women for both on- and off-site roles.

They feel that the pressures to work extra hours and maintain profit margins leave little room to consider flexible working arrangements and this increases their level of uncertainty around hiring women.
This roadblock is also reinforced by the lack of visibility of women on smaller job sites and a basic lack of knowledge around what hiring women entails from an employer and team culture perspective.

Employers often expressed doubts about managing women and ensuring their wellbeing, and fears of potential associated liability. In cases where male employers had no female staff, while the vast majority were open to hiring women, they didn’t know where to start or felt that there are few women seeking roles in their field.

Source: © State of New South Wales First published: January 2024

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