Only three percent of women in the built environment industry feel the industry is tackling gender equality well, but results may be better achieved by shifting the focus away from women.

Ahead of International Women’s Day, the Design Futures Council (DFC) conducted research on the status of women in the industry. The findings show that respondents overwhelmingly feel that while other industries are progressing with diversity initiatives, the architecture, engineering and construction industries are lagging behind. 

Alexia Lidas, managing director of the DFC and Metis Advisory and CPD, says the research results are representative of her experience in the industry.

“Although I am managing director of two businesses in the built environment, both males and females commonly assume that I’m the assistant of the male consultants working for me. I do have a laugh about it, but there is a disappointing undercurrent to this assumption that I chose to ignore,” says Lidas.

“This experience has been echoed by the participants in my research. The top challenge faced by respondents is an assumption that they lack skills, followed closely by being overlooked for senior roles.”

Research participants range from top senior executives to graduates, who work across a broad range of industry sub-sectors including engineering, architecture, interior design, sustainability, product design, product manufacture, property development, specialist legal advice, marketing and strategy.

According to the research:

  • Only three percent of respondents feel the industry is approaching diversity well
  • 33 percent believe the industry is lagging behind
  • 18 percent believe the industry is doing an “okay” job, but “not great”
  • 46 percent were not sure where the industry stood compared to others

Women in construction were asked if they prefer ‘women in construction’ initiatives or if they feel these initiatives should be opened up to all minorities (i.e. LGBTI, disabled, Indigenous Australians). Fifty-five percent responded to say they enjoy initiatives and events for women in construction and would gladly attend more, and only 24 percent agreed that these initiatives should include other minorities.

However, leadership expert Isabelle Philips of consultancies Mackerel Sky – Leadership Matters and Mindfulness for the Global Village says this may be a counteractive approach.

“Achieving a workplace where the real talent of high-achieving women can be acknowledged is counter-intuitive,” says Philips.

“We need to do more than just focus on women. Paradoxically, this approach will always position women as ‘the other’ and that feeds the existing unconscious bias in all our brains. We need to create truly diverse workforces to cut through the bias in our ‘savannah brains’.”

Philips has suggested that having an organisation with a diverse mixture of people will actually be a greater help to women looking to assume leadership roles, as they will not be “the only applicant who is not a ‘cardboard cut-out’”.

Lidas and Philips have made the following recommendations for companies in the built environment industry:

  • Broaden the inspiration behind diversity programmes – look at what other industries are doing
  • Do not focus specifically on women – bring other groups into these strategies and strive for equity for all
  • Empower all staff to meaningfully contribute to the diversity aspirations of the company
  • Ask yourself which markets you are moving into, which supply chain distribution channels you could engage with better, and which consumer base you are looking to represent. This can create a meaningful link to the low-hanging fruit of your business strategy and diversity goals