Building more flexible workplaces won’t just attract more women into construction, says researcher Natalie Galea. It will also help men to strip away the “straitjacket of masculinity” that is undermining the mental health and relationships of workers across the industry.
August 22nd, 2017
Galea, who is currently “trudging” through the process of writing up her PhD through the University of New South Wales, has spent the last three years examining why gender diversity policies in the construction industry are failing, and the structural practices that maintain men’s advantage.
In 2016, Galea took home two prestigious prizes: NAWIC’s International Women’s Day scholarship and the CBRE University Scholarship at the NAWIC NSW Awards for Excellence.
Galea says both awards have helped her further her academic research and exposed her to an “incredible network of people” that are helping her shed light on some of the construction’s industry’s most challenging conundrums.
“Suicide in the construction workforce is almost double the national average,” she says.
When men in the industry “prioritise work over everything else, including family and health” the consequences are far reaching, and the costs acute.
Mental Health in the Construction Industry, a report prepared by the University of Melbourne on behalf of Mates in Construction in June, found that “suicide is elevated in construction workers compared to other workers in Australia”, at a rate 1.7 times higher than other male workers. The report attributed this to a range of factors, including employment conditions and job insecurity, lack of sleep and poor working relationships.
“The industry is starting to have conversations about mental health, but part of the problem is planning and resourcing. It’s important we start to explain that tight programs impact on people’s safety and their mental health,” she says.
In this environment, it’s hardly surprising that so many women leave the industry when they start a family, she says.
“Although many companies have generous parental leave policies, they continue to lose women at the parental leave point. One company I surveyed had lost 50 per cent of its female workforce after parental leave. If that happened to men, they’d send out a search party,” she says.
Galea says companies need to improve their return-to-work programs for women in construction. Her research has found women who return to the same construction project they worked on prior to parental leave generally do well, but those placed in the general resource pool are in what she calls the “lost lands”.
“Finding their way back into a suitable project is challenging, and they are often siphoned off into roles that put their career progression into a holding pattern.”
Part of the problem is the lack of part-time positions. “Construction roles are seen as ‘full time plus plus’. Anything less than this is resisted on construction sites,” she explains.
This isn’t exclusively the experience of women, though, and Galea’s research has found men who are primary carers are lost to companies at the same rate as women.
The solution? “It comes back to how we resource our projects, and how we plan at the initial stages,” she says.
Companies need to spend more time measuring turnover in gender terms and age brackets, she explains. “We need to work out when we are losing people. The organisations I’ve worked with have systems in place, but they lack the nuances to uncover valuable data around resourcing and why talent is walking out the door.”
Despite the challenges, Galea remains optimistic.
“One of the companies I researched is piloting different ways of working, including no weekend work. This may not sound innovative, but construction is starting from such a low base. Another is bringing project managers together to tackle the problem of flexibility as they set up a project.
“These are positive moves, because it gets down to the way we work. It’s not about fixing women, but about improving the conditions for everyone. And that will have a flow-on effect in attracting both men and women to the industry.”
With two decades in the construction industry under her belt, Galea is currently “dipping her toe in the water” with a consultancy practice, and has recently secured her first contract. So how does she think the support of NAWIC has helped her career?
“The financial benefits were obviously awesome, but the access to the NAWIC membership base has been an unexpected benefit,” she says.
What’s Galea’s advice to other women wanting to take their next step in their careers?
“Don’t think about it, just do it. And if you don’t get a scholarship the first year, like I didn’t, try again.”
The NAWIC NSW Awards for Excellence will be held in Sydney on Thursday 24 August 2017. Tickets are available online. Applications for the 2018 IWD Scholarship will open early 2018.
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