The responsibility of the industry and the individual

By Helen Motti

Gender equality has gained great momentum since the late nineteenth century when feminist groups fought for the right of women to vote. Despite increasingly reduced manifestations of misogyny in Australian society, the introduction of stricter policies around the treatment of women in the private and public realm, and decreasing discrimination on the basis of gender, the idea of gender equality and how this translates to the need for equity for women in the workplace is one which continues to be explored and challenged. Inequalities pertaining to pay, participation and opportunity, amongst other areas, are still undoubtedly evident in the Australian employment system. Introducing processes to improve equity are particularly challenging in the construction industry due to the physical nature of a number of roles that are at its very foundation – these roles require that women make life choices in order to balance their physical limitations, expectations and career aspirations.

Contrary to public speculation and a myriad of research and reporting, my time within the construction industry would suggest that women in the industry have quite a number of advantages and safety nets in place which promote their professional advancement and success. Today, there are many who would suggest that more can be done, that sexism has merely been masked and that men still have the upper hand in the construction industry – this in some ways, may be true. However, I believe that rather than due to a lack of trying and innovation, gender equity in the construction industry is genuinely unattainable due to the physical, time-based and inflexible nature of the construction realm.

As previously stated, my stance on this issue can only be based on my understanding of gender equity, how I have seen this be implemented in the companies that I have worked for and across the industry as a whole. Gender equity means the fair distribution of resources, programs and decision making to all without any discrimination on the basis of sex whilst also addressing imbalances in the benefits available to males and females. So what in my experience suggests that the industry has made significant efforts to achieve equality in the workplaces I have been employed? To make things easier, I have broken my evidence of the industry combating gender inequality into three groups: resources, decision making and imbalance rectification:

  1. Resources: Recognising women as an asset in the industry. The Australian Government has ensured that women are able to have an improved work-life balance by introducing paid parental leave as well as unpaid parental leave. These two schemes allow women to take time off to give birth and a right to return to their old job. Additionally, child-care is becoming increasingly accessible, with some companies in the industry introducing child-minding services to employees in order to get women back to work sooner. Finally, monetary resources in the form of scholarships and grants are providing women with further educational opportunities to improve their chances in the industry.  
  2. Decision Making: Recognising the knowledge and understanding women contribute to the industry. Women in the construction industry are most commonly found in professional positions such as Project Manager, Quantity Surveyor and Architect, placing them at the forefront of design, direction and decision making in the industry. Since commencing my time in construction in 2010, I have worked on a multitude of projects of which women were in leadership positions. Most significantly, my first job as a Building Cadet for Laing O’Rourke on the Stockland Townsville Redevelopment Project: Both the Senior Engineer and one of the Project Managers were female.
  3. Imbalance Rectification: Recognising that the expectations placed on women in the private sphere create challenges for their progression in the construction industry. In order to compensate for the responsibilities placed on many women with children, the construction industry has introduced more flexible ways of working such as reduced hours, working from home, and selectivity around job descriptions.

Additionally—and perhaps more challengingly—gender equity involves examining and adapting organisational practices and policies to ensure the participation of women is not hindered. It is highly advocated that very few females engage in construction trades and labour roles due to sexism. However, based on my experiences I believe construction companies are going to extreme lengths to encourage the participation of women. During my time as a Building Cadet for Laing O’Rourke, there were three female apprentices in the Queensland division. Alternatively, I believe females’ perception of manual jobs is the key underlying issue behind the low participation rates; majority of young females stereotypically view trades as male-only careers. Therefore, women may not be as attracted to such labour-based roles, especially when considering the expectations such as early starts, tight deadlines and male dominated cultures. It takes a strong minded, determined and hardworking female to pursue their dreams in a construction trade and participation rates suggest few females desire to take on such a challenge.

Simply put, in my experience and from what I have seen practiced, the construction industry has made a significant effort to promote and enforce gender equity across the realm, and for that reason, I do believe that it is becoming a progressively irrelevant issue. The way that women reflect on their treatment in the industry is becoming increasingly individually-based premised on the choices we make; our responses to everyday interactions in the workplace; our commitment to being our best, producing our best; and consistently driving for self-improvement. On a personal level, I acknowledge the challenges that I face as a woman in the construction industry; subsequently, I have experienced first-hand and witnessed the advantages that have come from the effort that many companies and the industry itself makes to improve my chances of overcoming them.