A Business Owner’s Guide to Building Diversity in Construction

Building diversity in the construction industry isn’t simply about being “politically correct” — it's smarter business in the longer term.

Construction businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to find the people they need to get the job done, while just 12% of workers in the high-demand industry are women.

With record infrastructure investment announced by governments across most Australian states, construction companies are competing against each other not only to win lucrative contracts but also the people to deliver the work. These increased costs with fewer resources lead to scope creep, lagging work packages and budget blowouts.

Why is construction still a man’s world?

Bucking the trend compared with other industries, construction is one industry where the workforce gender pay gap remains significant. Over the past year, the pay gap has widened to 16.6%, peaking for those aged between 35 and retirement. This is reflective of research by Sydney University which shows that half the female workforce didn’t return to their construction jobs after having children. 

Sydney researcher Professor Louise Chappell has revealed the three factors that have resulted in a male-dominated workforce:

  1. Long hours. The demanding and often changing schedules of on-the-ground construction Long hours. The demanding and often changing schedules of on-the-ground construction workers can deter women from taking on certain roles. Women more often take on caregiving roles, and long or uncertain hours can make it difficult to balance work and family responsibilities.
  2. Sexism. The blokey culture has lost its rakish “charm” over the past few decades — with wolf whistles and calendar girls lessened. That doesn’t mean that equality reigns — there is still a way to go before women feel it’s a “people’s” world rather than a man’s.
  3. Lack of flexibility. For women who are juggling professional and family demands, the rigid demands of the workplace often means they have to take their skills elsewhere. 

Beyond these core reasons why the struggle exists to build a gender-diverse workforce, there is also a lack of knowledge of the raft of roles and career paths among possible candidates. National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) chair Kristine Scheul said a “lack of women in leadership positions, with women making up just 15% of key management roles, 11% of director roles and 3% of CEOs,” makes it hard for female candidates to map a career path.

“Who’s making decisions, who’s setting the culture, who’s setting the aspirations for the organisation? It’s the leadership. And if we don’t have enough women up there, that culture is never going to change,” Scheul said.

Why do we need more women in construction?

Australia’s state and territory governments’ multibillion-dollar infrastructure spending boost is great news for the construction industry. However, a workforce shortage has led to lagging project completion dates and cost blowouts in competing to win people on the ground.

Infrastructure Australia forecasts that yearly investment on large-scale public projects will peak at $52 billion in 2023 — double the expenditure of 2020.

In its first Infrastructure Market Capacity report — released on 13 October 2021 — the independent industry body predicted the industry would need to find 105,000 more workers within the next 18 months to meet construction demand.

Its analysis has revealed that the peak of demand for skills is 48% above the supply available.

“Meeting this demand would require annual growth of 25% over the next two years, which is more than eight times higher than the projected annual growth rate of 3.3%,” Infrastructure Australia Chief Executive Romilly Madew said.

Shifting the gender imbalance will be critical to the industry meeting its workforce requirements, but it’s not simply about numbers on the ground. Gender diversity offers a range of other benefits.

Randstad’s November 2021 Women in Construction report confirms that a more diverse workforce brings fresh ideas, experiences and perspectives at a time when Australian construction is facing challenges – from sustainable development to harnessing new technology.

Other benefits of building a gender-inclusive workforce include greater innovation, increased productivity and greater competitiveness when tendering for public contracts with governments that have diversity in mind.

Four actions to build construction workforce diversity

Future-proofing your business is critical in today’s competitive market. Here are our tips to help you get there:

  1. Develop a workforce plan

Good planning is paramount. Identify what your workforce skills gaps are and where they are likely to be in 12 to 18 months. Consider the whole of your workforce, from town planners to project managers, accountants, brickies, work health and safety officers and more. Map out where existing talent within your business can be progressed to help challenge and retain them. This means following a dual approach to your workforce — keeping and upskilling existing people and then attracting new talent who can see the opportunities you offer firsthand.

  1. Recruit for the long term

Filling a gap to manage an urgent shortage sometimes means taking shortcuts. However, this approach can cost your business into the longer term. Recruit for attributes as well as skills — and ensure your offer to potential female employees is equivalent to their male counterparts.

  1. Improve working conditions

Break down the barriers to female participation by thinking creatively about your workforce — including family-friendly flexibility where possible. This will help stem the exodus of experienced women in their 30s from leaving the industry while also creating loyalty and stabilising your workforce.

  1. Invest in development

Gender representation across all levels of the business is critical — from the building site to the boardroom. It’s not about being politically correct —this will help your business become more agile and competitive, and recognised by clients, business partners and potential workforce participants. Nurturing development and mentoring is central.

With a lagger in innovation and change, the construction industry also faces the challenge of meeting exponential demand increases with shifting technologies and expectations. Building diversity is beyond filling gaps — your business will reap the rewards of becoming more stable and competitive.

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