When you think of a construction worker, what image comes to mind?

More than likely, your first thought was of a man in some sort of PPE, potentially wielding a tool. With women comprising only 11.7% of the construction industry, and an even more meagre 1% of women specifically employed in construction trades, this assumption is a mostly accurate reflection of the current state of the industry.

Building and construction is the second most economically significant industry in Australia, contributing a massive 8.1 per cent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The building and construction industry is also a significant source of employment in the country, with approximately 1.1 million Australians working in this sector (8.9% of total employment in the country).

Despite the construction industry being such a frontrunner in a number of aspects, it has significantly lagged behind in terms of gender representation.

It is no secret that Australia's construction industry is one big boys club, and with the participation rate of women declining from 17% in 2006 to 11% in 2016, the building and construction industry has been described as the 'last frontier'.

So, why aren't women joining the construction industry?

Long, Irregular Hours

Construction work doesn't follow the typical 9-5, Monday to Friday schedule that most full-time workers enjoy.

Due to the deadlines that must be met, construction work can occur round the clock and bleed into the weekend, which can be challenging for some women to commit to. This is because women tend to have child-caring and family responsibilities, which can be difficult to juggle with the often long and irregular work schedule of construction.

The prevalence of  peer pressure for construction workers to endure long work days can also lead to women being shamed by their colleagues, if they are unable to work the 60-70 hour weeks that are common in the industry.

Discrimination & Negative Stereotypes

One of the most significant barriers to women joining the construction industry is the overt and covert discrimination that women often experience and the strong male culture that permeates the sector. Since the overwhelming majority of workers in the construction industry are male, it is only natural that their values get embedded into the culture of the industry.

For example, extensive working hours, competition amongst colleagues and self-sufficiency are highly valued, and are not necessarily congruent with the type of work environment that women tend to thrive in.

Since the construction industry is predominantly male, the strong gender bias and negative stereotypes that are perpetuated, make it challenging for women to prove themselves amongst their male cohort, gain recognition and progress professionally. Women often feel as though they have to work significantly harder than their male counterparts doing the same job. This can be very discouraging, lead to high turnover and deter women from working in construction.

Manual Labour

The strong association between construction and manual labour often prevents women from considering work in this industry. This area of construction has long been considered a male domain, as they are perceived to be stronger. However, this is not necessarily the case and there is technology and machinery available to take over or assist with many tasks that require significant physical exertion.

There is also such a diversity in roles within the construction industry that they shouldn't be limited by the scope of manual labour. For example, there are managerial and leadership roles that don't require as much heavy lifting, if at all. Labouring is not the only career path that the construction industry has to offer.

So, women shouldn't be limited by the misconception that the only roles available in construction revolve around manual labour, and if they do pursue a career in construction trades there is machinery to provide assistance.

Lack of Female Role Models

Another barrier to women participating in the construction industry is the lack of visibility of women working in this sector. Since, the construction industry is so male-dominated there are very few women in the industry that are able to show other women, especially young women, that a successful career in construction is possible for them. Role models are important as they provide an example of what is possible, help to diminish perceived barriers in construction, and expand the realm of possibilities for women.

It is clear that there is still a long way to go before gender representation in Australia's construction industry hits parity. However, with initiatives, programs and incentives specifically designed to encourage more women to enter this industry, construction is on a positive path to change.

What Can Be Done To Increase Women In The Construction Workforce

Women are invaluable to any workforce and their increasing participation has consistently led to a significant boost in productivity and the businesses bottom line. By having very few women participating in the workforce, the construction industry misses out on the potential of this huge source of untapped talent.

So, it should be a no-brainer for the construction industry to do more to encourage women to join their workforce.

Change The Culture of Construction

The construction industry has such an entrenched male culture, due to the very skewed gender composition of the workforce. To help increase the rates of women in this sector, it is vital that this culture is changed so that women feel comfortable, safe and supported in the workplace.

Overhauling the strong male-dominated culture and establishing one that is more inclusive and embracing of diversity is fundamental for improving the representation of women and ensuring that future generations of women consider construction as a viable career path.

Changing such an embedded male culture may seem like an insurmountable task, however change can be initiated through collective and consistent actions across the construction industry. For example, implementing fair hiring policies that gives women applicants an equal chance, and basing recruitment on the merits of the individual, is a positive step that will open the doors to more women.

Another strategy to improve the participation rates of women, is the early engagement of girls through school programs. This can help to improve numbers in the long-term, as it actively changes perceptions surrounding the construction industry and expands the type of career paths that they will consider in the future.

It is vital that all strategies employed to bring about positive cultural change are supported by those in leadership positions, as it reinforces the importance of shifting the culture in construction and sets the example for everyone to follow.

Develop Mentoring & Networking Programs

The establishment of women-focused mentoring and networking programs is vital in encouraging women to work in the building and construction industry. Mentoring programs help to reinforce women's choices to pursue a career in this sector, by providing them with the support and guidance they need to progress.

These programs are also beneficial as they help women expand their networking opportunities. Since, the construction industry is both male-dominated and reliant on networking and business relationships, mentoring programs help women create professional connections, which open them up to similar opportunities that men in the industry are exposed to.

A prominent industry body that is dedicated to empowering and championing women in the construction industry, is The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC). NAWIC provides members with the opportunity to grow their business networks, keep abreast of news regarding the industry, improve skills and knowledge, and help lift other women in the construction industry. To find out more about what NAWIC does and the events they hold, click here.

Improve Work Flexibility

In order to encourage more women to enter the construction industry, it is important that there is greater flexibility in the work hours of construction roles.

Work flexibility is often a highly desirable factor for women when considering a role, as it allows them to make time for the other responsibilities they may need to attend to. More flexible work arrangements in the construction industry will help to not only attract women to this sector, but also retain them.