A major UNSW report, Construction Industry: Demolishing gender structures, to be launched by the Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner today, outlines why formal policies aimed at attracting, retaining and supporting the progression of female professionals in large construction companies have failed to achieve gender equality.

The construction industry is the most male-dominated sector in Australia with women representing only 12% of the workforce in 2016 – a decrease from 17% in 2006. Among professional and managerial roles, women represent only 14% of staff. 

UNSW researchers shadowed 44 construction professionals at some of Australia’s leading construction companies to observe industry work practices, and conducted 61 interviews with professionals on site about career pathways. 

“Our research found that business leaders and managers had a varied degree of understanding, readiness and ownership of gender diversity,” said lead researcher Natalie Galea, from UNSW Built Environment, who has worked internationally as a project manager in the construction industry. 

“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.” 

The research found that rigid work practices – including long hours and an expectation of total availability, lack of flexible parental leave (in practice), tolerance of sexism, and accepted informal recruitment processes that favour men, were all barriers to career progression for women in the sector. 

Chief investigator Professor Louise Chappell, from UNSW Arts and Social Sciences, said the report’s deep, qualitative research gets “under the skin” of gender equality issues in the sector. 

“The report shows that not only do women professionals in construction fair badly because of existing work practices, but so do men. Reforming expectations about time spent on the job and family responsibilities will make construction a more attractive industry for both men and women,” Professor Chappell said. 

Key recommendations: 

  • Stop rewarding and promoting excessive hours and ‘shaming’ those who don’t comply 
  • Demonstrate ‘no tolerance’ for sexism – sexist drawings, wording, behaviour – in the workplace and on site
  • Change the narrative. Recognise, recruit and celebrate agile and diverse career pathways and career breaks 
  • Make recruitment/promotion processes and criteria more transparent 

What: Launch of Construction Industry: Demolishing gender structures report When: Wednesday 7 December 2016, 9.30 – 11.30am Where: Australian Human Rights Commission, Level 3, 175 Pitt Street, Sydney 

Link to full research findings here or PDF available on request 

This research was supported by an Australian Research Council Linkage grant, Loughborough University, the Australian Human Rights Commission and Diversity Council Australia.

The larger UNSW research team included Dr Abigail Powell from the Centre for Social Impact, UNSW Professor of Construction Management, Martin Loosemore and Adam Rogan.  

Read Louise Chappell and Natalie Galea's opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Read the Australian Financial Review article here

Fran Strachan