I often claim to work in construction- but we all know I don't. I work in an office in central Brisbane, on a keyboard and in lots of meetings where the air temperature is a steady 22 degrees. I get my lunch Ubered to me and I wear high heels. I work on the fringes of construction, the only time my heels get dirty is when I visit a customer (which I do a lot, to be fair). But I see a lot during those interactions and I learn a lot about why there are so few women working in construction.
Less than 10% of my actual customers are women. I interact with some more women during the process of setting up client accounts, obtaining business information and organising transactions with my customer’s companies - but less than 5% of the decision makers in the 7200 construction companies listed on iSeekplant are women. 90% of the customer names in my accounting system are male names.
This speaks to two issues: the general lack of women in decision making roles in construction businesses (large and small) and the general lack of women in the industry, period.
Women in Construction are still less common than drop bears and are becoming extinct... here's why.
The construction industry in Australia is the third largest employer of all people, yet 88% of those employees are men (leaving a measly 12% of job opportunities for women to benefit from). Female participation in professional construction roles is slightly higher, but still only 14%, and women leave those positions at a 40% higher rate than their male counterparts. So that means an appallingly low 120,000 women (TOTAL) work in the whole construction industry in Australia.
120,000 people is terrible when you consider that the industry employs over one million people. Even worse when you find out that our participation in construction is going backwards despite the industry openly ‘encouraging’ us to join construction and all the big construction companies implementing active hiring and promotion programs to improve female inclusion.
20 years ago (in the 1990s), female participation in the construction industry was higher at 17%, which means that another 30,000 women have walked away from construction in that time. All the media hype, all the industry outreach and all the developments in workplace fairness have all come to naught - or, more accurately, have caused a decline in female participation in the industry.
Below are my seven big reasons for why women in construction are rarer than drop bears and dying off at a fairly furious pace.
7. The culture of the CFMEU
The CFMEU’s brainwave about enhancing their offering to literally 50% of Australia’s capable and available workforce is to offer us ‘domestic violence leave’ - leave you can take when your thug husband beats you up. This idea is the genius of a guy (John Setka and cronies) with a rap sheet longer than my arm, and now on trial for harassing a woman, and claiming that Rosie Batty’s advocacy for domestic violence victims has reduced men’s rights. If this isn’t a microcosmic example of everything that is wrong with the culture of the CFMEU, I don’t know how to better illustrate my point to you. The CFMEU is not a place where women feel welcome, safe, understood, protected or advocated for.
6. Promo Girls at Construction Events, Nude Calendars in Workshop Walls...
You can read my detailed views on the subject of Promo Girls (and how wasteful event marketing spends are) in my latest eBook - click here to download. Women have been used as ornaments and props in advertising and marketing to male dominated industries since Adam was a boy, and there has been a long legacy of brands and businesses in construction using women as a facilitator of a transaction (by playing on the most basic desires of the male human mind) - be it in advertising materials, at events with the use of promo girls or even more abstractly when they entertain clients at gentlemen's clubs.
Women have been treated as the social lubricant for buying transactions in construction for a long-time and this practise needs to cease - not nearly because it reduces respect for us in other roles, but because it's generally crappy, assumes men are no smarter than the average lizard and is now entirely ineffective in influencing modern procurement practices.
There is also a heap of childish stuff that happens on job sites that would not be tolerated in any other industry on the planet including fairly feral nude calendars common workshops and site sheds, Zoo magazines scattered on every flat surface and even the more imaginative executions of base male humour (I was on a site last week where a guy was walking around in a hard hat that said ‘I Love Boobies’).
Can you imagine if a young male accountant at Price Waterhouse Coopers had a nudey calendar in his cubicle? What if I walked around my office in a shirt that said “I love d?cks?”. I just LOLed as I typed. Seriously, that is so ludicrous, why is this stuff still tolerated in construction when it is so off-colour in every other industry? Why is it assumed that guys in construction can’t go a full 8 hour work day without ogling a naked female form? Every other guy in every other industry can...
5. The Reinforced Concrete Ceiling (No Career Progression)
If there is a glass ceiling in every other industry, then there is a reinforced concrete ceiling in the construction industry. Ambitious women with the hope of improving their roles and pay over the course of their careers can’t see a way forward in construction, especially if they take a little time off to have kids. This is because the boy’s club keeps female construction workers held back for reasons already explained, and others below. With so many blokey blokes involved in the management of these construction businesses, and so few women on boards and at senior management levels, there is no one to advocate for us and to facilitate our rise through the ranks - especially when, as explained a moment ago, some people in the industry prefer to look at us like a walking pair of hi-vis mammary glands.
4. Working in Senior Construction Roles is TERRIBLE for People With a Family
In order for Australia’s job market to better utilise the enormous economic might of 51% of it’s strong and healthy working population, its had to make changes and compromises over the last 20 years to accomodate for to the undeniable reality that women are also the ‘breeders’ of the community. These compromises have included flexible working guidelines, part-time and casual roles, contract positions, maternity leave, affordable and government-subsidised childcare and slowly changing the working culture to make it ‘OK’ that women leave to pick up their kids, take carers leave days and work 2 days per week if that’s all they can manage with their family responsibilities. Children need interaction with their mothers, and females are the natural primary caregivers for the children of society. Thanks to everyone in history who has fought for us to have a little wiggle room.
Representation of women in construction is low, and continuing to fall because the working hours and expectations in construction are impossible to manage with a family. Most civil and commercial job sites start at 6am and finish at 6pm - in management you’re required on site the whole time, or in more direct labour-force roles, rosters regularly include 10 hour working days, weekend work or shifts start at odd hours.
These incredibly long-hours preclude a woman from using all the low-cost child care options out there. If she starts work at 6am, she can’t drop her kids off at a regular daycare, school or kindergarten, can’t use family day care for the same reason, it would be hellishly expensive with an at-home nanny and is even outside of out-of-school care hours if she has school-aged children. Women who work hours like this have only one option - which is lean on a grandparent or spouse to drop the kids off during regular child-care opening hours - which is sometimes not an option given that they too work full-time.
So, if you choose a career in construction you ultimately get no additional pay consideration as a salaried employee for working outside of office hours (other than a little danger-money), can’t organise affordable childcare that works to your schedule and you work impossibly long hours (see below). Why the hell would any woman actively make this choice? That leads me to my next point...
3. Unbelievably Long Hours Compared to Every Other Industry
There is no doubt that construction work is hard, long, hot and unpleasant to many - that’s part of the territory, but what the industry has developed over many years is a ‘harden up mentality’ to an ever-increasing weekly workload where contractors are expecting 60-70 hours of work from their salaried employees, including regular Saturday and Sunday work, and sometimes consecutive 14 hour days.
Contractors both here and from overseas are applying increasing pressure to construction workers to get projects done to unrealistic schedules and to compress costs at the same time - which means everyone on site is stretched beyond reasonable working time and pressure expectations. There is also a culture of shaming each other - with jibes about ‘sleeping in’ if you drop your kids off to daycare, or being a ‘part-timer’ if you’re unable to work on the weekends due to family commitments. This culture of eat-a-bowl-of-concrete-and-get-back-to-work only allows the contractors more rope to keep squeezing their staff to breaking point.
2. Unconscious Bias- The Sexism that Happens Without You Knowing It
What we are talking about here is the deep, dark sexism that lurks in the back-alleys of the mind - called unconscious bias. This is a super complex topic - because every human holds unconscious stereotypes and beliefs about other groups of humans in society that have been learned over many years, and they are often consciously unaware they hold them, or how their behaviour reflects these beliefs.
Someone can actively identify as not sexist but still do sexist things - like failing to consider a female employee for a job because something inexplicable renders her ‘incapable’ of it in their esteem, or talking over the top of a woman because unconsciously they don’t value what she’s saying, or asking the only woman in the meeting to organise the coffees. Women have, since the beginning of time, been seen as the physically weaker sex (despite our bodies being, on average, less than 6% smaller than a man’s), so its totally probable that a lot of people hold the bias that we can’t do construction work because they think our bodies can’t do it - in reality we are easily fit enough and strong enough to undertake most activities on a job site. Doesn’t matter though, if the industry mostly ‘thinks’ we can’t...
1. The Guys Aren't Having Much Fun Either
The construction industry in Australia reports double the national average in terms of suicide rates, and is at the top of all working industries in terms of alcohol and substance abuse. Alcoholism is rife, as is the use of ice, opiates and recreational drugs. You’re 15 times more likely to die working in construction than if you choose a career working in other service industries (like retail or manufacturing), and 400 times more likely to die than if you choose an office job. Yes, some of the labourers roles pay well when compared to other jobs for lower skilled workers in manufacturing and retail, but as discussed above the conditions and expectations of time commitments far exceed that all other industries. So, in summary - a little more pay but a lot more unhappiness.
The construction industry is running its people, not just its women, into the ground which is having a negative impact on the quality of the lives of people who work in the industry, and making us women run scared from pursuing a fruitful career. This needs to be discussed and improved - not just in the context of gender equality - but just general fairness and sustainability of construction as a career in our modern society.
My Customers Are Always Screaming For Good People
One of the biggest complaints of my customers in a boom time (which, for all intents and purposes could describe what is happening now in most metro construction markets) is that they struggle to get and keep ‘good people’. Most of my customers want to grow their business, but struggle to find reliable machine operators, leading hands and construction managers that can be trusted to show up everyday and do careful and quality work. Perhaps part of this issue is because the construction industry needs to change to attract ‘more’ people to it - and there is a whole bunch of capable, healthy, strong and smart people at its disposal - women - that could doing great work for them, but as discussed above A LOT has to change to make that a reality.
I think the construction industry needs to pull its finger out and make some changes to the way in which people, not just women, are treated and paid to work what is a really tough job, in a really tough environment. This includes some cultural changes - including changing the way everyone looks and interacts with women, and then some more concrete labour market changes to improve flexible working options, reduce hours expectations and time commitments and do a better job of facilitating career progression for women in construction, generally speaking. With some tiny tweaks (and some slow, slow cultural change) I think we can turn those workforce participation rates around.
Who’s with me?