Despite increasing awareness surrounding the importance of gender diversity, Australia faces major barriers to attracting and retaining women in the construction industry today, with women within the industry forced to overcome significant obstacles to reach their potential, the newly appointed leader of the nation’s foremost body for supporting women in architecture, building and engineering says.

National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) chief executive officer Laurice Temple said the challenges facing women in the industry today remain similar to those in the past, including a lack of students (both men and women) going into maths and science-related courses and a dearth of role models for other women to look up to.

Temple was appointed to the top job at NAWIC earlier this month after having run Melbourne-based consultancy Construction Management Results for seven years and worked as a project services manager for BP for the past two years. She says more needs to be done to raise awareness within schools about the opportunities for and importance of women in the sector.

“I’ve been in construction for 25 years and worked around the world, and I don’t think the challenges have necessarily changed much in that time,” Temple said. “There are still really low numbers of women in construction. And when I say construction, it’s engineering, project management, architecture, construction law – the whole of the industry. The question is why and if you look at Australia, we are really low in numbers both men and women going into the sciences and mathematics.”

“So if you explore that further, we are still not supporting a lot of girls in that very formative age (year six to eight) when they are starting to figure out what they want to do. We’re not only not supporting our children to go into maths and sciences but in many cases that I’ve heard from  young women engineers is that we are discouraging them from pursuing going down that route.”

Around Australia, large parts of the building sector are still dominated by men despite growing awareness about how those from either gender can contribute to improving the built environment.

Even as the proportion of men to women across the nation’s overall workforce has shrunk from 1.6 to 1.2 since ABS records on the subject began in 1984, that ratio in the construction sector has barely moved and remains stuck at almost eight to one.

Average ordinary-time pay earned by women in the industry, meanwhile, has remained at around eighty cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts for the past two decades, most likely indicating that men continue to dominate more senior roles.

In addition to challenges in the professional side of the industry, Temple says women working as tradespeople on site face their own set of difficulties, often as a result of working for smaller builders who do not have the same systems in place as tier one and tier two firms.

She is aware of women, for instance, who are still fighting to get toilets on site. In a more shocking example, meanwhile, a panellist at a recent International Women’s Day Forum described how two male tradies at a site she had attended not long ago had joked that a room on the site would be a good ‘rape room.’

 ratio of men and women

Asked about challenges in her new role, Temple said NAWIC’s role in supporting women through mentoring and coaching as well as providing role models remained crucial and she looked forward to having challenging discussions in areas where behaviours and attitudes still need to change.

She says much of Australia’s education and corporate system is still based around industrial-revolution era structures, and the responsibility for change on the ground rests with everybody.

“To keep on par with the rest of the world, we’ve really got to start looking at the way we are doing business” she said. “What are our set of values? How are we going to make a difference in the worldwide platform?”

“And I think it starts with a commitment from each and every one of us not looking to the leaders necessarily to action things but what we ourselves are going to do.”

She said change had to come from within the industry, and not just from those who lose out as a result of the gender imbalances.

“It’s not up to the victim to make a stand. It’s up to all of us collectively as a society,” she said. “That’s how the industry is going to change.”