In recent years, there has been a well-documented drive in the construction industry to encourage diversity, particularly to address gender imbalance, but we still have a long way to go. The statistics speak for themselves. 97 percent of CEOs and 88 percent of senior managers in the construction industry are men. 98 percent of trade and semi-skilled workers are men. The overall participation rate for women in 2021 is just 12.6 percent.
When companies are looking to promote their efforts, the outcome is usually holding short and sweet events for staff at their project offices. I have attended many of these events, typically a morning tea, held on days that are intended to honour and encourage “women in construction” and “women in engineering”. We are told that we are important, valued and good for businesses, but never told what anyone is doing about improving the statistics.
I was also once asked to bake a cake for a Women in Engineering morning tea by the male project director, who then decided to be the unofficial keynote speaker while I went back to site to complete a concrete pour. These events are tokenistic at best, and laughable at their worst. Where are the real changes that truly help to attract and retain women in our industry?
When I say real changes, I want it to start with setting up our workplaces and sites with women in mind. I spent nearly three years questioning my superiors on sites where portable toilets are used as to why sanitary waste bins and adequate handwashing facilities couldn’t be provided. I was told it was cost prohibitive in some cases, and in others I was told it just wasn’t possible. Women, though few on site, were told to return to the main site compounds if they needed “special facilities”.
For me, this was mostly accessible, but in my early years, would require having to call my male manager and ask him to drive me back to the office to use the bathroom. For other women working as labourers and plant operators up to 10km from the office, this simply wasn’t an option. When COVID-19 hit Sydney, suddenly these facilities appeared. It turns out that it has always been possible, it just wasn’t a priority.
How can we, in 2021, tell women that they are welcome, that they are encouraged, to pursue careers within the construction industry, when we can’t even provide them with equitable access to hygiene and sanitation? How can we proudly say that things are improving when the workforce participation rates of women have fallen from 17 percent in 20061 to 12 percent in 20213?
What I can definitively say is that it’s going to take a lot more than a morning tea with purple cupcakes to make meaningful change for women in construction.