Business Feature, Earthmoving Industry Insight, Opinion

NAWIC – attracting more women into the industry

Finding ways to attract more women into the industry and keep them there was the topic of conversation for National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC)’s Shifting the Dial webinar recently, looking into ways to implement culture change and how greater diversity benefits everybody

NAWIC’s Shifting the Dial webinar series forms part of its efforts to reshape the construction industry to increase female participation to 25 per cent by 2025.

The focus of this year’s webinar was on the issue of how to attract more women into the construction industry, with a panel of industry experts discussing how their organisations have been addressing this challenge.

CPB Contractors civil operations manager – Victoria and Tasmania Raph Touzel highlights that the current skills shortage is one of the major challenges that need to be addressed for the construction industry to deliver the infrastructure Australia needs. Hence, prioritising diversity in the workplace creates opportunities for more people to have fulfilling careers within construction.

“Last year, CPB launched an Australian-first women in construction program, which was a three-week paid pre-employment program in Sydney. It was a successful program that has now been rolled out in Melbourne,” Touzel says.

“This year, we had an extraordinary 798 applicants across New South Wales and Victoria – and that was up from 200 last year. We believe our women in construction program is making a fulfilling career in construction accessible for all women and providing financial security and a guaranteed job on a major infrastructure project across the [two] states.”

Touzel says that this program, along with TAFE partnerships, are providing women with the practical skills required to enter construction, either fresh from university or those looking to transfer from another industry, making construction more accessible for women of all ages.

Increasing diversity can show benefits to all in the workplace. Image: Rido/Adobe Stock

This theme was picked up by John Holland sourcing specialist Casidhe Simmons, who says that practical on-the-job training should be a focus to get more women into the industry.

“Outside of roles that need specific technical requirements and high-level qualifications, I think you can learn on the job [for many roles in the industry],” Simmons says.

“And you can do upskilling courses or development, and we need to invest in that.”

Simmons referenced the success of John Holland’s partnership with AFLW, which over the past year has seen several AFLW athletes and staff start jobs with the company.

“We’ve got a number of amazing AFLW athletes and employees that are in engineering and procurement roles, which are not the traditional roles that you would expect for women to be doing,” she says.

“It’s fantastic to see that it is working. The point of the program was to push those boundaries and showcase that transferable skills work.”

She points out another important aspect of growing female participation in the industry – educating women that these roles exist, and that it is possible for them to get involved.

“We needed to be more clear and inclusive in our advertising, when attracting women into the workforce, because they don’t know what they don’t know,” Simmons says.

“This generation that’s going through school now are being educated around the industry, but those [who are older and already in the workforce] don’t know anything about construction, and they probably think of it as being a scary, pretty mean environment, when it’s quite the opposite.”

Culture shift

When asked whether a cultural shift was being seen within the industry thanks to programs like the above, Touzel says that having a stronger presence of women on construction sites is having a positive effect on the workplace culture and “removing that old blokey mentality”, which is a positive for all employees, regardless of gender.

“We’vegot a big focus on wellbeing in the industry – we run campaigns about speaking up, respect, it’s okay not to be okay, and psychosocial hazards,” he says.

“Diversity on our sites, whether in gender or otherwise, is enabling a more balanced, supportive and overall, more productive job site.

“When I reflect back on when I joined the industry 20 years ago, there’s been such a big improvement. But we still need to do a lot better. We still hear about incidences of unacceptable behaviour… so we’ve still got a long way to go to open up the industry and make people feel safe.”

Bringing women in from a variety of backgrounds is also important, he adds, transitioning from industries such as retail, hospitality and tourism in later stages of their career, as “these people are bringing a more diverse, vibrant experience to the workplace”.

“They all bring their own experiences and backgrounds, which are more representative of the community at large.”

Education of the opportunities available in construction is vital to increase participation. Image: Linus/Adobe Stock

Barriers to entry

As one of the few women who work within the demolition industry in Australia, Melbourne Wide Demolition director Joanne Ramselaar says there is an issue around jobs more traditionally held by women being both less valued and compensated, which contributes to the lack of women seeing it as a viable option.

“The [women who do work in demolition] are usually related to the owner of the company, or the holder of the licence, and they do their paperwork or answer the phones,” Ramselaar says.

“The roles are mainly part time and they’re not usually highly paid or valued by operators. I actually don’t know of any women who operate an excavator or work on site as a labourer in the demolition industry.

“The perception is that the demolition work on site is much more important and should be highly compensated, whereas our work as business owners in winning the jobs, client management, obtaining the permits and managing the demolition is not valued as highly.

“A perception we also encounter is that a lot of people assume that we don’t have the knowledge or skills to provide a quote or manage the demolition projects. We’re often asked over and over ‘do you have the skills? Do you know what you’re doing?’

“These negative perceptions and undervaluing women’s abilities is one of the main reasons why people won’t enter the industry, or they leave quite quickly. And it would be great if there were more women in demolition, as that would be able to help combat some of these perceptions and bringing up the standard of demolition.”

Tradeswomen Australia non-executive director Kit McMahon adds that, although the number of women completing trade apprenticeships is growing, the number is still a tiny fraction compared to male apprentices, with discrimination and a lack of accommodation leading many women to leave the industry.

“The construction industry is founded on the assumption of the typical worker – which is male,” she says.

“There is no accommodation for… the care burden that is ascribed to women. So, the reason that women drop out is because they can’t do that other job that society asks them to do, which is care for children or, increasingly, care for the elderly.

“The reason that women drop out from apprentices in male-dominated environments is because of culture. They don’t feel supported. Interestingly, the reason why men drop out of female-dominated industries is because of poor career satisfaction, so a very different experience.”

Encouraging more women to enter the industry will help address skills shortages. Image: ABCDstock/Adobe Stock

Building support

When asked what can be done to address these barriers, answers ranged from increasing flexibility to improving education and providing greater access to mentorship. However, says McMahon, mentorship should work both ways – both to support women coming into the industry and helping them progress their careers,  but also to teach leadership how to better manage their staff.

“We need to start introducing what is called in other industries ‘reverse mentoring’,” she says.

“It’s the idea that the people that are in the minority are actually mentoring leaders about how to be better leaders to create a more inclusive environment. My personal view about mentoring programs is that often they’re founded on the idea that they’ve got to fix the person that’s in the minority. When they’re used well, mentors are advocates for the person that they’re there for, they’re not there to just be the wisdom tap.”

The importance of male allies is also vital to ongoing improvement of culture in the industry, with greater support shown by male staff towards their female colleagues not only a benefit to women, but to improving conditions for everybody, McMahon adds.

“The first thing that our allies can do is know there’s a problem. Not excuse it, but actually get informed that there is an inequity problem, and then why that’s the case,” she says.

“The second thing that they can do is they can speak up about things that need to be changed. If your colleague says something that’s not right, call it out. You can also make suggestions and advocate for policy and system change. Do we really need to work 10 hours, seven days a week? I don’t like doing that and I’m sure no one else does.

“Equality is good for everyone. Often, it’s seen as the woman’s problem, but stereotypes that affect women affect men as well, so addressing it is good for everyone.”

Simmons agrees, saying that greater flexibility would be just as much of a benefit for male staff – for example, allowing them to do the school run or take a child to a doctor’s appointment.

“If we create an environment where everyone feels included, valued and respected, that will be a key attraction and retention [tool],” she says.

“Flexibility [not only] enables women to focus on their careers, it enables men to be a full-time carer if they so choose. It levels the playing field, essentially.”

For more information on NAWIC and its work, visit: nawic.com.au

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