Construction has one of the biggest gender gaps of any industry, but one CEO thinks there are forces at play that might soon lead to more balance.
Speaking during the Women in Engineering breakfast at the Australian Engineering Conference, the CEO of newly launched construction company Roberts Pizzarotti, Alison Mirams, drew on her nearly 20 years of experience as a woman in the male-dominated construction industry.
During that time, she’s worked in nearly every role at companies including Multiplex and Lendlease. Now, Mirams sees her new role as a chance to start a conversation about how to make the construction industry more inclusive.
From the ground up
At the first site Mirams worked on in 1998, she had to travel around the block just to go to the bathroom, as there was no women’s toilet on site.
“At the time I accepted it and didn’t question it,” she said.
Compared to then, the construction industry has come a long way, but it still has one of the largest gender imbalances of any industry, with women only making up about 11 per cent of the workforce.
“The issue with diversity in construction doesn’t stem from the demand side – most companies are seeking to hire and support candidates underrepresented in the workforce,” Mirams said.
According to her, the problem begins with women not choosing to study subjects that feed into a career in the industry, either because they don’t see a future for themselves in construction or they don’t see it as friendly to women.
More engineers and business leaders need to spend time in schools showing the opportunities available to women in the industry, Mirams said, and she suggested more organisations think about starting or funding scholarships, mentoring opportunities and work experience for women pursuing a career in construction.
Just as important as recruiting women into the construction industry is retaining them, and two of the biggest reasons women leave is caring responsibilities and workplace culture. This means removing some of the ‘blokey’ stereotypes of the industry that might deter women, but also making it easier for women and men to balance work with home life.
“Many wives of construction workers are single mums [when they’re on maternity leave] – their partners aren’t there Monday to Saturday. We need to change the industry for men, because that will also make it easier for women,” she said.
Mirams wants to start a conversation in the industry about moving to five-day working weeks for construction. Long work weeks take a toll on employees and their families, and the construction industry has some of the highest rates of suicide.
“If I delivered a contract to a client that said ‘we will work on this project six days a week full out, but three people will die in the delivery of this project’, it might make them stop and think,” she said.
Building a company from scratch at Roberts Pizzarotti provided Mirams with a unique opportunity to advocate for these types of changes to something that’s still firmly embedded in the industry.
“We need to highlight to clients the impact their pursuit of the fastest delivery model is having on the people in our industry,” she said.
Building a network
Mirams left the audience with a few insights she’s gleaned over the years about how the industry might foster inclusion and diversity.
She urged attendees to find mentors and sponsors, and to in turn be a mentor and sponsor.
“You need to create a network that connects you with people of influence. In our industry relationships matter, and your ability to foster relationships with people who can mentor and sponsor you will impact your career progression,” she said.
As important as mentoring and sponsorship are for your own career, Mirams said to pay it forward and become a mentor or sponsor to another woman in your organisation.
She also said it’s important to “choose your attitude”, as you can’t always control what others will say about you, but you can control how you respond which “will make life a lot easier”.
Finally, she encouraged women to promote themselves more often – whether it’s for a new role, an award or a development course – and not let the fear of being ‘token’ get in the way.
“When you get an opportunity, take it. When I was at Lendlease the organisation was 32 per cent female, so the group CEO mandated attendees at every event had to be 32 per cent female.
“That meant I was invited to everything, and many of my fellow male GMs were not. Were they annoyed? Yes. Did they say it was just because I was a woman? Yes. But I was in the room, networking and hearing the message firsthand. Own that.”