Natalie Galea and Phillippa Carnemolla
Construction is one of Australia’s fastest growing industries. It employs around 1,143,600 people, which accounts for 8.7% of the total workforce. Over the past five years, employment in the industry has increased 7.3%.
The median weekly earnings for those working in construction are around A$1,305 per week. This is higher than the median weekly earnings of $1,209.00 across all industries.
But construction is also the most male dominated industry in Australia – 87% of workers are male. And the high earnings in the industry are partly responsible for Australia’s gender pay gap. Figures from August 2021 show the high earnings growth in the construction industry pushed the gender pay gap for full-time workers out to $261 a week.
We interviewed 15 young women in years 11 and 12 about their perceptions of the sector. Most didn’t know about the industry’s high earnings and said they couldn’t picture themselves in the job, as they didn’t see many women there.
‘There’s not many successful women in construction’
We randomly recruited female high school students to have a broader discussion about their career choices. We did not have any prerequisites about academic performance level, interests, tertiary/TAFE education or career goals.
Two study participants had parents in the construction sector. But the others had very little knowledge of the potential career options in construction, which are broad and varied, or the fact it was Australia’s third largest employer and a growth sector.
Construction roles include different trades – such as plumbers, carpenters, electricians and mechanics – project managers, engineers, communication and community engagement specialists, land surveyors, health and safety experts, crane operators and commercial managers to name a few. Pathways to these roles can be via university degrees, apprenticeships, internships and TAFE training.
One young woman told us:
I think at school we don’t think of the construction industry as being a range of roles. It is on site and it is bricklaying.
Almost all, 14 out of the 15, young women interviewed said they could not imagine themselves in a construction career. They gave a range of reasons, including that it was too labour intensive, it was not prestigious enough, and the concern they would not be listened to or respected.
One young woman said:
I can’t see myself doing construction at all. I feel like I would be intimidated.
When asked about female role models in construction, the students overwhelmingly said the only women they could identify in the sector were those responsible for traffic management.
A young woman told us:
I don’t see many girls on construction sites that do more than hold the lollipop signs.
There are not many successful women in construction.
An unfriendly, male dominated sector
A majority of participants (12 of 15) had a negative opinion of the construction sector because it was male dominated.
They were concerned they would not be respected in the workplace, that sexism would be tolerated, and masculine behaviours such as aggression and assertiveness would be the norm.
One student said:
I want to know that what I go into the people there are going to respect me. I would want equal chances of getting a promotion if there was a man standing next to me.
In some cases, a career in construction did not match with their altruistic aspirations to serve the community and help people, while in other cases, participants said they did not perceive construction careers to be creative or interesting. One girl said:
I am interested in doing good for society and helping people. Construction would not give me that opportunity.
The students felt differently about engineering, however, and recalled efforts by their teachers and universities to promote STEM subjects to female students.
The construction sector has work to do in educating schools and the public that it is a valid member of the highly regarded STEM professions. Almost all construction roles draw on science, technology, engineering and maths.
A realignment of values to attract young women
To address gender equity, the construction sector needs to engage directly with young women and respond to the sometimes valid, and other times, mistaken beliefs they may hold about the industry.
To have any chance of overcoming its poor reputation with young women, the sector will need to overhaul its outdated masculine behaviours and champion the successful women already working in the sector. For instance Alison Mirams (CEO of Roberts Co), Rebecca Hanley (Managing Director of Laing O'Rourke Australia from April 2022) and Josephine Sukkar AM (co-owner and Principal of Buildcorp) are women leading large Australian construction companies.
The sector must also concentrate on retaining and progressing the women who already work there through initiatives including flexible work practices, transparent promotion procedures and paid parental leave.
Better communication about the diverse range of roles in the sector may help to spark greater interest among female students. The sector also needs to work with school career advisers, who often have low knowledge of the sector and tend to steer male students towards it.
Natalie Galea is and Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the Australian Human Rights Institute, UNSW Sydney and a Senior Lecturer at The University of Melbourne. Phillippa Carnemolla is a Senior Research Fellow, School of the Built Environment, University of Technology Sydney.