Paving a Brighter Future for Women in Construction

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By Willow Aliento, Originally Published via Jobsite – Powered by Procore

Women are still substantially under-represented in the construction industry workforce. However, according to the How We Build Now 2020 research, more than half of all surveyed firms believe this will change in the next decade. We spoke to one of the trailblazers who is showing the way for other women looking at a career in the sector.

Sara Cecchi said as the business improvement manager for SHAPE, she works at the crux of two industries believed to have a gender balance problem—construction and technology.

Whenever we see stories about construction in the media, we’re usually presented with images of men. The same is true of technology firms. Women are working in both sectors in growing numbers but remain much less visible, which may bias young women against possible careers in these sectors.

Asked whether some media narratives presenting construction as a “boy’s club” are true, she says it is “yes and no.”

“It is still predominantly male, but it has come a long way in terms of diversity, including other minorities. It is starting to change.”

From the outside looking in, she says it is understandable some might see it as a male industry, but the lived experience of herself and others is different.

“It is still predominantly male, but it has come a long way in terms of diversity, including other minorities. It is starting to change.”

“There is a very narrow view of the industry from the outside. [But] it is not uncommon now to see women throughout the industry, including on the client and construction teams, as well as subcontractors.”

The media also often presents the industry as offering “dirty work”—typically photos of men in hi-vis covered in paint, dirt, grease or dust.

How We Change the Narrative

One of the big things that needs to happen is showing young girls the types of careers they can have, Cecchi says.

Women who have entered the industry in recent years have quite often had a parent already in the industry who has encouraged them to be an architect, an engineer, an electrician, or even “be on the tools.”

“There are so many diverse career pathways… but the message gets lost in the stereotypical boundary.”

There are more female graduates now entering the industry. Hopefully, “the media will catch up” to that, she added.

The HWBN survey found there is a conscious movement for change, and a growing number of firms have explicit diversity policies.

The obvious presence of women is not, however, the only hurdle. At the recent HWBN panel discussion, Cecchi said there can be an “intimidating culture” that can make it difficult for young people entering the building business.

“There are so many diverse career pathways… but the message gets lost in the stereotypical boundary.”

According to research by the University of NSW, cited by Cecchi, there are “systematic barriers” to women’s participation. These can include “hard and toxic” working conditions. For instance, “There are deeply embedded status quos.” says Cecchi.

Cecchi says that one of the reasons for this historical culture is the sheer hard work involved in conventional construction approaches.

But as construction adopts greater use of technology, the diversity of roles expands. The on-site work also evolves to incorporate less physically onerous work that is “a lot more considerate of the human body.”

There is also an organisational focus on the “culture piece” within many firms to challenge status quos. The “acceptance, equality and respect piece” is important beyond achieving gender balance, Cecchi says.

SHAPE runs culture and teamwork sessions at the start of key projects to bring the client and subcontractors onboard. Cecchi finds they result in “more honest communications” across the board and “better project outcomes for everyone.”

COVID Could Fast-Track Change

Cecchi believes one of the potential upsides of the current COVID-19 emergency is it is causing many to look at the deeply embedded issues and structures that contribute to industry pain points including lack of gender balance. It is also driving a rapid pivot to ways of working and doing business that could support greater participation by women.

Flexible working and remote working are both becoming rapidly normalised, something Cecchi says could benefit both men and women in the industry.

“I hope some of the good changes continue.”

“I hope some of the good changes continue.”

The reduction in contact hours, increased flexibility, and technology-enabled working are all positive changes. SHAPE, for example, has been utilising photogrammetry technology that enables virtual site visits.

Is Parenting a Career Roadblock?

One group that could particularly benefit from a culture shift are parents.

Cecchi says she had always thought having a child would be “Armageddon” for her career, but this turned out not to be the case. Instead, her career evolved in new ways.

She said that one of the traditions that made it difficult for parents is starting work at the “crack of dawn” and finishing well past sunset. Those long, hard days did not leave much time or energy for family life.

The recent movement around reducing excessive working hours is a positive change, and not only in terms of family life.

“When people have that work-life balance and that [time for] a private life, they actually perform better at their job,” Cecchi says.

One area which requires progress is parental leave. Checchi says that while it has become easier for women to access it, there is work still to be done on ensuring men can access parental leave as well.

Building Confidence Through Connection

Cecchi says networking with other women in the industry has been a major support for her career. She is part of Women in Design and Construction (WIDAC), an organisation that was started four years ago by some of her SHAPE colleagues, Althea and Erin.

It has now grown to a community that stretches around Australia, with in-person groups in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney as well as an online presence.

“A lot of women [in the industry] are looking for a support network,” Cecchi says.

A recent WIDAC survey asked members what they felt was holding them back, and the number one answer was “confidence,” Cecchi says.

Women feel a lack of confidence in their abilities, career pathways, potential, networking, and their ability to speak up in a meeting and disagree with someone.

Cecchi says the support network gives people the community they need to develop their confidence. It is also a safe space for women to have honest conversations about some of the challenges and concerns, such as how to manage a career while parenting.

The mentoring within the organisation is also vital for finding those “champions” who will back a woman and advocate for her career.’

The Personal Rewards are Tangible

Cecchi undertook studies in engineering at university and was drawn to project management and construction management. Her career has since evolved to incorporate data analytics and the uses of data to improve company processes and outcomes.

She believes the construction industry to be critical to the economy and to society.

“Shelter is one of the basic human needs. We are actually giving back to society [with our work].”

There are also personal rewards, she explains.

“I can walk past a building and tell my daughter, ‘I helped build that’. The work has a tangibility, and that is quite rare. Your portfolio is out there in the world.”