Walking into the annual National Association for Women in Construction (NAWIC) awards the other week, it was hard not to notice the irony. The convention space within Sydney’s Star Casino was packed with men, whose numbers vastly outweighed those of their female compatriots. It wasn’t a terrible surprise, considering that construction sites have always been some of the most gendered spaces in any industry. But it was somewhat disappointing to witness such a stark discrepancy on a night that was, in theory, dedicated to the celebration of women.

After welcome drinks, the event’s guests were ushered to a series of tables laden with candles and cutlery, facing a stage where some of the industry’s highest achievers would soon receive their due recognition. A total of ten awards were to be given throughout the night, in a ceremony that was punctuated with keynote speeches and presentations from a number of influencers.

At each place setting was a program that set out the order in which these events would occur. Next to each of the ten awards listed was the name of the senior industry player who would be presenting that category. Of ten awards, nine presenters were male.

Although both the men and the women who appeared on the stage that night no doubt earned their place there, it is a fact that there is a glaring gender disparity within construction; a fact which is made clear by the need for such associations as NAWIC to begin with. But though there has been much progress, progress has been made from a very low base, and the awards night was a reminder of just how far the industry has to go to achieve equity.

All of this was empirical evidence from the night, and it was, after a few wines, not advisable to write these observations down without reliable consolidation. So the next morning, with a clearer head, I reached out to Natalie Galea, the 2016/17 recipient of NAWIC’s prestigious International Women’s Day (IWD) scholarship. As incumbent recipient of the scholarship, it was Natalie who gave the IWD Address on the awards night this month, talking about her long and formidable career trajectories – from Olympic judo champion, to a senior in the construction industry, to her current position as PhD candidate conducting research on the state of women in construction. If anyone was able to quantify my observations, I thought, it would be Natalie.

Between her continent-spanning construction career and her PhD, Natalie is more familiar with construction sites than most. She also came from a construction family – of plumbers – and so she thought she knew the industry before she entered it.

It is well-established that, numerically speaking, there is a great difference between the recruitment, progression and retention of men versus women in construction and related trades. There is also an accepted lack of formality to many of the processes – HR and otherwise – within the industry. Although Natalie knew all this, and became accustomed to it throughout her various roles within the industry, it was only over the past few years as she researched gender equity in construction that the full impact of established industry norms became clear.

As with most PhDs, Natalie’s degree has been split between research and practice. One of the more enlightening aspects of her work has been the latter, which has seen her travel to construction sites around the country to interview people and shadow them through their relative day-to-days, getting a firm idea of what they do and experience on-site.

“Our research methodology was quite interesting,” says Natalie. “We interviewed people, and one of our main questions was why formal gender diversity policies were failing to attract, retain and progress women. We first looked at the policies, and then we interviewed the senior leaders.

“The next stage was to get a female and a male researcher, who also represented an ‘insider’ and an ‘outsider’ to the industry. I was the insider and the female, and the other researcher was the outsider and the male. Although, most people though it was the other way around,” she laughs.

“He and I went on-site and spent a day in the life of probably 60 construction professionals around Australia, across six construction sites. We interviewed a lot of people to get this life history of how they were progressed, how they were recruited, and how they were coping with life on-site and in construction more broadly.”

Along the trajectory of attraction, progression and retention, a fragmented picture of multiple layers of issues emerged.

The first was related to the informal and inconsistent means by which people – both men and women – are brought into the construction fold. According to Natalie’s research, the way that women enter the industry is quite different from men. In general, women go through formal means, responding to official job advertisements off the back of related degrees and courses. On the other hand, men are more likely to get their foot in the door through more informal networks: “dad’s mate, uncle, bloke from rugby”. This path affected who received their CV, and the level of the legitimacy their application got. It also influenced the rate of progression within their career trajectory.

“We found that, from a very early stage, there was a practice of male sponsorship or strategic alliance, and particularly in recruitment onto projects,” says Natalie. “Recruitment into the company was formal, yes, but recruitment onto projects was done by project managers who picked their team and took their team with them from project to project. If I can crudely put it, it was kind of a system of favoured sons, where certain people were given the opportunities and the exposure that other people weren’t necessarily given.”

The informality of the construction industry is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means that sponsorships and alliances are deeply personal and supportive, capable of opening up opportunities. On the other hand, it makes for a flawed meritocracy, where networks and interpersonal connections speak louder than the work you are doing, sometimes at the expense of those who are most deserving of progression.

“We found that informal alliances and sponsorships predominantly aided career progression for men, but were habitually closed to women,” says Natalie. “Because of that lack of transparency, it strengthens the need to be strategically aligned and sponsored. We found that men and women were given unequal access, and women were often shepherded into ‘feminised’ career paths. In construction, some examples are design and commercial areas, which don’t have the progression opportunities to be able to later step into senior leadership roles.”

While the perception of unfair advantage would no doubt influence retention in any industry, there were a number of other factors that contributed to the construction-specific statistics. Currently, women leave the industry 39% faster than their male colleagues. Much of this has to do with the expectation to work very long hours – on average between 50 to 80 per week – and the expectation that employees need to be flexible for the needs of the project.

This rigidity had a flow-on effect to related policies such as parental leave, which was once again often subject to informal processes. Despite having formal human resources policies in place, often parental leave was viewed as a resource and actual cost for the project, and was something that individual women were expected to negotiate for themselves. Even if they managed to successfully negotiate that hurdle, it still left the issue of their post-leave return to work.

"For women, if they went on maternity leave and they were on a big project, and they came back and the project was still running, they were okay, because they had those existing connections,” says Natalie. “But the women who went on maternity leave and had their project finish during that time, they then really struggled to find a linkage back in, and that was a real issue.

“The other retention issue for women – which, I don’t think women go, ‘Okay, I’ve had enough dick pics, I’m out of here’, because I think a lot of women really try hard to be included in the industry, and particularly young women – but as time went on, we found that women were just constantly reminded of their difference and their gender. There was a real tolerance for sexist graffiti, sexist language, sexist humour… I had a quote from one woman, which was, ‘If you can’t deal with dick pics on the wall, then construction’s not for you’. But the thing is, I’m sure a lot of men aren’t comfortable with that, either.”

Natalie likens the tolerance to ‘dick pics’ on the wall to trip hazards. “If I was shadowing someone on a construction site and they saw a trip hazard, generally they would identify it and stop to fix it,” she says. “But when I was shadowing people on sites day in and day out, they walked past really graphic and sometimes really targeted graffiti, directed at particular women. There was also homophobic material on sites.”

The cumulative effect of long hours and what could easily be interpreted as a toxic culture had its stark manifestation in some of the stories Natalie heard while visiting the sites. And surprisingly, much of the time it wasn’t women who were talking about the impact this culture had had on their personal lives. It was often men who were opening up about sleepless nights, debilitating stress and multiple divorces. Across the period of her research, Natalie was told of three cases of suicide.

“That was one of the biggest surprises for me, visiting the sites,” says Natalie. “I should’ve known this, considering it’s such a masculine industry and people don’t talk about the struggles happening in their life, and how stressed they are. But it just blew my mind, because I’d been in the industry so long, and I had no idea any of this was going on. There’s such a silence about it.

“To my mind, if companies are really serious about gender diversity, they’ve got to look at how they’re doing their jobs, how they’re resourcing their jobs, and the expectations that they’re placing on their workers,” she adds in the way of a tentative solution. “If that means sometimes saying no to programs that are way too fast, then so be it. I know it’s a hard game, and construction has really narrow margins, but it comes down to nurturing the talent we’ve got, and making sure people are healthy.”

As with any problem with such deep roots, it’s hard to know exactly where to start. From individual construction sites to the broader pipeline, there’s no one logical entry point to fixing what is not just a top-down issue with the establishment, but that is so firmly established in the perception of the industry, influencing who is attracted to it and how they are expected to behave once they get there.

The one thing that is clear, though, is that no matter how hard progress is, it’s sure better than the alternative.

Congratulations to the NAWIC 2017 award winners, listed below:

PROBUILD Tradesperson Scholarship


Tamara Currey, John Holland Group


Procore Scholarship for Future Leader Award


Ali Blanch, CPB Contractors


Ruth Hoog Antik, Lendlease


CPB Contractors Award for Innovation in Design


Teenie Lee, Mirvac Design


CBRE University Scholarship


Alayna Topolovec, UTS, Bachelor of Construction Project Management


Roberts Pizzarotti for Contribution to a Project’s Development


Vicki Rushton, Hansen Yuncken, for Macquarie Rapid Build Prison


Acoustic Logic Award for Contribution to Sustainability


Jo-Anne Gamble, Lendlease


Sharon Gray, John Holland Group


MPA Award for Achievement in Construction, Refurbishment and Fit-Out


Amanda Hackett, Shape Group


John Holland Award for Team Innovation


International House Sydney project team, Lendlease


Mirvac Design team, Brighton Lakes


Master Builders Association of NSW & Clinton Recruitment Project Manager Award


Kirsten Evans of CPB Contractors