Final Frontier, or No-Go Zone?

Thinking it all over

Final Frontier, or No-Go Zone?

Increasing women’s participation in male-dominated industries starts with improving conditions for men.

This is the unexpected conclusion of research into why Australia’s building sites remain virtual no-go zones for women despite increasing gender balance across the workforce.

While women now make up 46% of the workforce, Australia’s third largest industry has seen a backslide in female participation. Despite technological advances, attractive pay, and quality mentoring and training programs, women now represent only 12% of the construction industry workforce, down from 17% a decade ago. Even remote mining jobs attract more women.

Women are leaving the industry 39% faster than men, refusing to put up with the outdated, inflexible, and unproductive working conditions. Pressure to put in 60-70 hour working weeks and the ritual shaming of anyone who doesn’t live to work are signs that construction is stuck in the past. Not rocking up for work on a Sunday because you’re taking the kids to soccer makes you a “part-timer” in this industry.

The “blokey” culture doesn’t help either, with workplace rites of passage intended to “toughen people up.” Bullying, overt and covert sexism, and a tolerance for behaviour that verges on sexual harassment all add up to a challenging career path for even the most ambitious woman.

It’s just not conducive to a healthy work-life balance.

And it’s not healthy for men either. The biggest toll is on mental health: suicide rates in construction are twice the national average, and substance abuse is rife. Construction workers are six times more likely to die by suicide than in workplace accidents, and young apprentices are most at risk.

The organisation Mates in Construction was founded to address the problem, and suicide rates are starting to come down. A few low-cost initiatives are having a high impact:

  1. Promote free, confidential 24/7 crisis hotlines
  2. Train workers to identify and respond to early warning signs in colleagues
  3. Work toward a culture of self-care and mental wellness

The strategy is simple, but change is slow. Women need to stand their ground and demand cultural change before taking the industry by storm.

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