Time for gender imbalance to be addressed

Donna Howell president of the National Association of Women in Construction.

Donna Howell president of the National Association of Women in Construction.

The booming construction sector and drive to get more people into trades, is attracting a growing number of women to the industry, with around 12 percent of all trade apprentices in New Zealand now female.

Donna Howell, president of the National Association of Women in Construction says there are many reasons why the sector should look more closely at hiring women.

“Women can bring a different set of abilities and perspective to the construction industry.”

Employing more women can also help to address worker shortages and gives companies a bigger pool of talent to choose from.

However Donna says while greater numbers of women are being attracted to the industry, sustaining a career in construction is not without its challenges.

“As an Association we encourage and support women in trades and the wider construction sector. One of the biggest challenges we face is helping them to re-enter the workforce beyond maternity leave, in what is still a male dominated environment. It also concerns me there are women who have been in the industry for some time who are not getting the opportunity to move into a position of influence.”

The number of women in the construction industry has doubled to 17 percent over the last 15 years and is continuing to grow.

However Donna says she would like to see this figure ‘unpicked’ in order to get a true reflection of the numbers of women actively involved in trades and professional roles including architecture, engineering and project management.

“That figure includes women in support roles, such as personal assistants, executive assistants, office managers, HR staff and marketing people. These positions are almost universally filled by females across a range of sectors, and should really be excluded from the statistics to give us a truer picture.”

She says women have made good progress when it comes to industry organisations, with many such as Prefab NZ, NZ Institute of Quantity Surveyors, NZ Institute of Architecture, NZ Green Building Council and the NZ Institute of Building Surveyors currently headed by women.

When it comes to construction companies, senior leadership teams remain predominantly male, she says.

“Many of the senior managers in construction are men who have come up through the trades and progressed to site foreman, project manager and project director’s roles before going on to lead a branch or company.  Because trades remain so male dominated, that’s a career path not easily accessed by women..”

The industry’s underlying macho culture and perception that men are better at physical labour than women is one of the biggest barriers, she says.

“It can be quite a foreign cultural environment to be thrust into, and is particularly hard for women wanting to progress towards a leadership role.”

When it comes to trades, she says there are many women keen to take on the physical work that comes with a role, and who recognise the ability it gives them to lift their average wage.

“There are some real trailblazers, who are definitely helping to change the face of the industry and make it more friendly and accepting of females in general. However there is still a long way to go.”

Donna, who is a project manager and registered architect, says her argument for greater diversity is not sexist, but to create a more inclusive sector that would have many positive spin-offs, even as far as building design is concerned.

“Most of the teams I’ve worked with throughout my career have been 90 per cent male, which can create an imbalance in our built spaces. When you think of the different traits of males and females and different types of approaches to design and construction I think we’d create more balanced cities, towns and urban spaces if more women were involved. It would be great to see more women leading architectural, engineering or development companies where they are in a position to influence outcomes.”

Donna expects the role of women in consturction to be a lively topic of discussion at the NAWIC Excellence in Construction Awards being held in September.

“We need to move beyond thinking that just having more women in the construction industry is enough. I hope the awards provide a forum for contemplating how men and women can work together more collaboratively in the future.”

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