When will construction become a likely career choice for women?

Two women who have found success in the building industry and want to encourage young women to consider construction as a career.

“This is a man’s world,” sang James Brown, the godfather of funk, in 1966. “But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl.”

More than five decades later, these lyrics provide a disturbingly accurate description of Australia’s construction industry, which remains an overwhelmingly male preserve.

Despite the efforts of government, industry bodies and individual companies, men still make up about 88 percent of Australia’s construction workforce. Only 1 percent of all bricklayers, carpenters, electricians and other tradies are women.

Research shows that even those women who do join the construction industry will face entrenched sexist attitudes, are more likely to leave the sector than men, are rarely promoted and are unlikely to return to their jobs after maternity leave.

But things are much better than they were two decades ago when Cathy Inglis, General Manager Innovation & Building Systems at Brickworks Building Products, first walked onto a construction site.

“Yeah, we have ladies’ toilets now,” she laughs. While there are now many more women working in the construction sector than in the 1980s, research suggests that female high school students rarely consider building as a future career path.

Inglis, the first woman in New South Wales to hold a mine inspector’s licence, believes that more should be done to encourage female high school students to at least consider a career in construction.

“There are STEM programs designed to get women into science and technology but I’ve never seen any programs to get women into the construction industry,” she says.

If you do see a woman on a building site, they are likely to be architects or quantity surveyors rather than tradies – although Inglis believes even that is beginning to change. “Lots of the hurdles in the past were to do with the attitude that if you were a girl you couldn’t know about building,” she recalls.

Inglis is convinced that not only are women as capable as their male counterparts to take up “macho” jobs in construction – they bring a number of special qualities to a building site.

“Women are much more pedantic,” she says. “They take attention to detail to a whole other level, while men tend to skim over things more.”

Brisbane carpenter Hayley Guinnane agrees that while the prejudice against female tradies is not as entrenched as it once was, things will need to radically change before more schoolgirls want to pursue a career in the construction industry.

Women make up less than 12 per cent of the total construction workforce. Guinnane says, “A big part of this is because girls are not told that they can consider construction as a career or they are deliberately steered into more socially acceptable careers for females.”

After enduring what she calls a “toxic, masculine atmosphere” at her previous job, Guinnane launched her own company called The Chippy Lady Tradie & Co which has attracted a loyal clientele.

Her message to other girls who want to work in the construction industry is direct and impassioned: “Don’t let other people’s opinions shape your view of your own abilities.”

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