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The economy needs more women in construction

It is no secret the Australian construction industry is very male-dominated. But what may not be fully understood by the general public is that we don't have any collective overt initiatives and goals in place to increase the participation of women.

Greater participation is not just important for gender equality reasons but is also a fundamental factor for a more robust economy.

"Greater female participation in construction is not just important for gender equality reasons but is also a fundamental factor for a more robust economy."
Laurice Temple, CEO of the National Association of Women in Construction

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The total production of the construction industry in volume terms is worth over $A100 billion annually and employs approximately one million people according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

The ABS maintains construction has a “major influence on every Australian, as it provides the homes in which we live, the places in which most of us work and play, our schools and hospitals, and the infrastructure such as roads, water and electricity supply, and telecommunications, essential for our day to day living".

Meanwhile, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates a boost to women's participation would increase the GDP of G20 countries by between 1.2 and 1.6 per cent by 2025, adding more than $1 trillion to the global economy.

So the greater participation of women in the construction industry will have a direct and indirect impact on all Australians.

PROBLEMS WITH THE FOUNDATIONS

Current participation levels for women in the construction industry sit at around 16 per cent with only around 3 per cent at the top C+ Suite levels.

A fundamental issue is not having enough women in senior positions who serve as role models and subsequently further attract other women into the industry, motivating them to climb the corporate ladder.

Having said that, the women who work in the industry typically are very highly qualified and thus we have the opportunity to shift the participation rate right now if we make a concerted and collaborative effort to do so.

WHAT'S HOLDING US BACK?

We know the participation of women over the past 20 to 30 years has increased due to changing social attitudes, providing adequate child care facilities, the growth in part-time work, and introducing maternity leave amongst other things. All of these have helped women to continue their careers.

But the Australian Construction industry generally is not known to be very flexible, offer very many part-time jobs or have the best of behaviours.

So if we could change our culture or the 'that's how we do things around here' attitude we could make a significant difference.

As we know, when trying to identify the traits of a positive culture, the key demonstrator is the set of behaviours that are present.

We need to start with making a committed and concerted effort in understanding those biases and behaviours negatively impacting the people working in the industry.

What we now understand through neuroscience is biases, whether conscious or unconscious, are shaped by our experiences, culture and lifestyles. Our biases affect not only our viewpoint but also our decision-making.

Some might argue the point, maintaining we don't need to work on the culture. But it is a well-established fact construction has the highest suicide rate in men of all the industries in Australia.

Construction workers are more than twice as likely to complete suicide than other people in Australia. No one can argue that is acceptable.

So until we get more serious about proactively and positively addressing the cultural challenges we will be doing ourselves a true injustice that impacts all of us working in the industry and will keep us from attracting and retaining talent in the future.

FOLLOWING THE EXAMPLE

Other industries have started on a journey to tackle the issues of their industries, providing compulsory training to help leaders understand things like unconscious biases.

A number of industries have now recognised we need to address the gender pay gap and are actively working with the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), trying to understand the reasons behind why there is a gap in the first place.

Many are openly addressing or offering flexible working as a norm, as well as having more part-time roles and offering maternity and paternity leave.

The construction industry still lags behind in these areas and that, compounded by us having the highest suicide rate, sets us significantly apart from any other industry - which should highlight the need for change.

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

To be able to ensure we attract and retain more women in the construction industry we need to be able openly address the workplace culture and put actions into place and hold ourselves to account.

To champion change takes a lot of effort and collaboration. It starts with the acknowledgement that things need to change, followed by the individual and collective commitment to change by us all.

What are we waiting for?

Laurice Temple is CEO of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC). NAWIC is a not-for-profit whose mission is to champion and empower women to reach their highest potential.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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