Barb the Builder: How to fix the construction sector’s gender equality problem

A woman and two male co-workers on a building site Photo: Morsa Images/iStock

A new report from UNSW Sydney researchers looks at why large companies are failing to attract, retain and support the progression of women professionals, and what they can do about it.

The report, Demolishing gender structures, is the culmination of three years of research, presenting findings from research at two major Australian construction companies.

The research showed that large construction companies are actively piloting a range of initiatives to support gender equality for example flexibility initiatives, wellbeing initiatives and gender targets.

But Professor Louise Chappell says large construction companies still have some way to go in providing equality for women working in the industry. 

“The number of women directing traffic outside construction sites has swelled in recent years. But if you look beyond the construction hoarding, women remain a rare species,” Professor Chappell says.

“In 2016, Men comprised 89% of the construction workforce, 99% of construction tradespeople and 86% construction managers and professionals.”


According to the research, three factors are keeping the sector male dominated:

  • Long hours and a culture of total availability that deter workers with care responsibilities,
  • Tolerance of sexism, which includes sexist drawings, wording and behaviour,
  • Women having to negotiate their parental leave and return, despite formal leave policies.


The report recommends meaningful measures that companies can take, including:

  • Offering part-time, shared and flexible roles, and five-day work week programs that allow workers more time with family,
  • Zero tolerance to sexism, with a policy spelled out and enforced at inductions and events,
  • Fatigue monitoring, safe and secure women’s toilets and showers on site.


Co-author Professor Martin Loosemore says in one large company studied, 50% of women did not return to work after parental leave.

“Childcare rebate provisions and paid parental leave are important steps forward, but for most women in construction in 2018, rigid work practices still mean they are making the choice between having a family and a fulfilling career in construction, and not both,” Professor Loosemore says.

Dr Natalie Galea says government responses so far have also failed, particularly where they’ve focused on setting gender ‘targets’ without supporting this with other measures.

“An ‘add women and stir’ response by government expects women to fit into construction work practices that aren’t good for men or women,” she says.

Associate Professor Abigail Powell says rigid work practices also affect men; with the construction industry having double the national suicide rate.

“As we shadowed construction professionals for our research, most men reported stress, lack of sleep, fatigue, anxiety and panic attacks,” Associate Professor Powell says.

“One young foreman told us that in ten years of working in construction, he has never worked on a site where someone hasn’t taken their life.”

The research notes that these issues around workforce welfare are also something for construction clients – including state and federal governments – to keep in mind when demanding large infrastructure projects meet tight deadlines.