Wide ranging action is needed in order to attract and retain more women in the construction industry, a new report focused on New South Wales has found.

Published by Building Commission NSW, the Women in Construction report explored barriers and opportunities in attracting and retaining women across the building sector.

It recommends 30 actions to be implemented across 10 areas.

The report comes as the construction industry both in Australia generally and in New South Wales specifically needs to increase the number of women in the sector’s workforce.

Already, the sector suffers from an overall shortage of workers.

In terms of civil construction and maintenance, the Public Infrastructure Workforce Supply Dashboard estimates that the nation has a current shortage of 232,100 workers across key occupations which are needed to meet public infrastructure requirements.

This includes a shortage of 133,500 workers in NSW specifically.

Turning to housing, the December quarter HIA Trades Report shows that shortages exist across each of the thirteen residential trades which are tracked in that report.

Going forward, demand for workers is set to ramp up further during the second half of the decade.

This will occur as the nation needs to deliver a record pipeline of road and rail projects, huge investments in clean energy infrastructure, a national housing target of 1.2 million new homes over the five years from 1 July 2024, the Brisbane Olympics and a significant number of school, hospital and water projects.

Without action, such demand will further exacerbate existing worker shortages.

In light of this, the need to boost female participation as part of growing the construction sector’s overall workforce capacity is clear.

In addition, the report adds boosting female participation will also deliver further benefits.

This includes improved workforce cultures, greater productivity through fresh perspectives and ideas, expansion of career opportunities for women and overall expansion of the economy.

Despite this, women still represent only 14.1 percent of the nation’s construction workforce as of last November (Labour Force, Australia, Detailed, Australia Bureau of Statistics, reference period November 2023).

The report aimed to identify significant barriers and opportunities in terms of both attracting more women into construction and better supporting the sector’s existing female workforce throughout their careers.

Conducted from June to October last year, it drew on 1,792 survey responses, nine focus groups, 36 individual interviews and review of previous research and data.

Among key report findings:

  • 46 percent of tier 2 and tier 3 construction firms employ less than 5 percent women and 35 percent have no female employees at all
  • 42 percent of male employers perceive physical demands of construction work to be too high (for female employees). This compares to only 13 percent of female employers who share this view
  • 65 percent of women surveyed feel that they need to work harder than men to receive the same recognition.
  • Of those women who have left the industry across tiers 2 and 3, 71 percent say they have experienced discrimination based on their gender.
  • Across all company sizes and locations, 53 percent of women surveyed report experiencing sexual harassment.
  • 49 percent of those surveyed across all genders avoid using toilet facilities on site.
  • Common reasons for women not considering roles in the construction industry include a lack of exposure to construction related activities and a lack marketing effort toward girls or women by industry or schools.
  • Challenges for women in entering the industry include difficulty in getting a role without personal connections along with employer reluctance to hire women in unskilled roles.
  • Common reasons for women considering leaving the industry including difficulty in balancing work and other responsibilities, long or inconvenient hours, company and team culture, lack of promotion or career opportunities and gender-based differential treatment.

The report noted that particular challenges exist with regard to smaller tier 2 and 3 contractors.

This is particularly problematic in regional NSW, where such contractors make up around 8 in 10 construction businesses.

The report includes a range of case studies which highlight challenges and opportunities from the viewpoint of both workers and employers.

In her last year of high school, 17-year-old indigenous girl Gemma knows of a few men from her year group going into construction and trades but has never thought about doing so herself.

A career in construction was never suggested to her and she doesn’t know much about the types of jobs that there are available in the industry. She views construction as for men and as a dangerous place to work for women because of the risk of sexual harassment.

Next, 21-year-old African female Ada is studying TAFE and doing an apprenticeship found through a family friend. The company treats her well and has a positive family-like culture.

Although her employer is supportive of her starting a family after her apprenticeship, she remains concerned as there is no precedent for this at her company (she is the only woman who works there) and the company does not have a formal maternity leave policy.

Finally, 38-year old Filipino concreter Natalie was originally hired as a concreting labourer after Year 10.

She has now left the industry without a plan for what is next.

Although her first employer was supportive, Natalie faced discrimination and sexist jokes from her male colleagues (being the first female worker in her company, she did not complain). In a subsequent job, Natalie experienced sexual harassment. She also felt as though she needed to prove herself and work harder than her male colleagues.

Turning to employers, small construction business owner Sam says he is open to hiring women but receives few applications from female applicants whilst those who have responded to his adds often lack the range of skills that he needs.

He is also concerned about potential legal action which may occur as a result of the jokes that are often told by his men.

Another case is 45-year-old Amir, who works as a certifier in a Tier 2 business.

Amir understands that the industry is short of talent and believes that women are an untapped resource. Indeed, he already employs a few women including one woman in management and is actively trying to recruit more female staff.

However, he is uncertain how to find women who are interested in trades or if there is a female talent pool into which he can tap.

Whilst his business has started to develop policies and procedures in areas such as parental leave to improve wellbeing, he remains uncertain how these can be implemented.

Amir also has further concerns in employing women in that conflicting cultural values could lead to offers of help being misconstrued as being patronising.

To address challenges, the report recommends 30 actions across ten areas.

These include:

  • Increasing exposure to construction and using tools through means such as taster programs, allowing students to complete Certificate II in Construction whilst in school, one-off programs to help school students to learn how to build things, greater support and encouragement for girls in taking design and technology subjects and having both male and female speakers talk about potential career paths at high schools
  • Increasing the visibility of construction by providing more materials to career advisors, supporting work of Careers NSW to create a tool to help students to find suable careers, promoting things which women enjoy about the industry (being creative, working outside etc.), considering how to change the way schools talk to students about trades/vocational study compared with university and promoting programs to support those entering and returning to the workforce
  • Targeting women who are most likely to consider construction as an employer, such as those from lower income families
  • Better support for women in construction careers through greater visibility of mentorship programs, podcasts and online communities, example career and training pathways, proactive support of alumni from training providers and tertiary institutions, and more options for flexible learning
  • Improving work-life balance through sharing of examples of a 5-day work week, example policies for flexible working and parental leave, allowing for 5-day work weeks in government tendering and allowing staff to take time out for appointments whilst making up hours without using annual leave
  • Improving business acumen through training modules and resources along with forums to enable small business to share learnings
  • Improving workplace culture through training courses about overt and covert sexism, provision of communication and guidelines on how to encourage respectful behaviour and consideration of government or industry funded employee assistance programs
  • Reducing uncertainty for employers in hiring women through a campaign which provides statistics and case studies to show benefits of hiring women across all tiers and providing policies and communication guides which outline how to set standards for culture and behaviour as well as how to encourage appropriate staff conduct
  • Matching women with interested employers through creating a free job board for employers interested in hiring women and providing employers with frameworks and examples for how to cerate job ads that better appeal to women.
  • Improving efficiencies through better data sharing between agencies to facilitate a collective understanding of issues and to enable collaborative resolution approaches.

NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler welcomed the report’s release.

Chandler said that attracting more women into construction will not only help to address workforce shortfalls but will deliver a more diverse and inclusive industry that increases innovation and productivity and leads to stronger economic performance.

He says that improving the workplace generally for all genders will encourage more women to join and remain in the industry.

“The Women in Construction report provides informed recommendations to increase women’s participation in the industry and address some of the systemic challenges they face,” Chandler said.

“I am calling on all industry stakeholders to consider the findings and actionable recommendations.”