A ‘toxic’ culture within Australia’s construction workforce must change if we are to attract and retain more women into the industry, a leader in the sector says.

Speaking at the launch of the 2020 How We Build Now report published by construction management software provider Procore, Sara Cecchi, business improvement manager at commercial fitout company Shape Australia and general manager of IT at Women in Design and Construction (WIDAC) said many women would like to work in construction but find the environment within the sector to be unsatisfactory.

“What we have seen in our membership base is that there are keen ladies who are starting (in construction),” Cecchi said.

“Then they hit a point where all of the sudden they realise that the working conditions are so harsh and so toxic that they choose not to participate in that anymore and they don’t tolerate those working conditions.

“And so we (women) opt out.”

Cecchi’s comments come as Australia’s building sector continues to struggle to attract and retain women despite growing recognition of the importance of women as part of the sector’s workforce.

In a survey of 260 construction related businesses conducted as part of the Procore report referred to above, 51 percent of those surveyed agreed that women will form a crucial part of the construction workforce over the next ten years.

Nevertheless, ABS data shows that whilst the overall number of women employed throughout the sector has increased from 81,300 in February 1990 to 147,100 in February 2020, the proportion of men to women who work in the industry has remained unmoved at around seven to one over than time.

In 2014, a UNSW report found that at each state of careers, numerous practices within the sector operate to undermine gender equality which have a cumulative effect that maintains the overrepresentation and power of men in construction.

These include:

  • The influence of informal networks in recruitment processes
  • A focus on recruiting from traditional degrees such as construction management and for candidates who are perceived to be a good ‘cultural fit’ within a company
  • A common practice of male to male sponsorship on projects and a tendency for ‘picking your team’
  • Rigid work practices such as long work hours, presenteeism and total availability
  • Practices where parental leave has been seen as an issue for women only
  • An exclusionary culture within the industry including a tolerance for sexism and presumptions that women will perform administrative work
  • Undermining and frequent questioning of women’s capabilities whilst leaving the capabilities of men to be assumed
  • Strategic alliances which are used to aid in promotions and progression which are frequently closed to women and which involve senior leaders who are predominately men
  • Unequal access to opportunities to demonstrate that they can successfully deliver on projects.

On the specific topic of industry culture, that report described an acceptance of sexist and unacceptable behaviours which are experienced by women.

These included:

  • Being called ‘sweetheart’, ‘babe’ and ‘girl’.
  • Being filmed in the shower at work
  • Being forced to exchange phone numbers to avoid harassment
  • Having breast commented on
  • Being delegated administrative tasks which were not in line with their role

As well as poor culture, Cechhi says many women who work in the industry feel isolated and thus have challenges with confidence.

She says a focus of WIDAC is creating a network and building the confidence of their members.

Others agrees about the need to make the workforce more friendly to women.

Matt Rayment, chief operating officer at PBS Building – who also sits on the board of Master Builders ACT – says the importance of attracting more women into the sector should not be underestimated.

“The more that we can encourage women into trades and into the industry – the industry will be better for it,” he said.

“We are very passionate about trying to tap into that market and encourage women into the industry that we all know and love. I think there is definitely scope there for the introduction of more women into the roles not just in project management but into trade skills and into management positions.

“If that happens, I just think we will develop a more diversified industry from which the industry will grow and benefit from.”

Cechhi is hopeful that the disruption to practices caused by COVID-19 could help to stimulate change.

“There are a lot of deeply embedded status quos in the way we deliver jobs,” she said.

“Something I am hoping that the COVID situation has sparked is whether we are ready for it or not, a lot of people are starting to question and a lot of organisations are looking hard at some of those deeply embedded structures.

“Those conversations are happening very seriously now. I really hope that they can continue.

“That is going to generate the systemic change which is required so that we stick around.”