An industry of choice and inclusion: pursuing gender parity in construction

by Helena Morgan
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Shock can be immobilising, but it often goes hand-in-hand with frustration and can galvanise people into action. This is a reality that Urban Core founder and managing director Dominique Gill hopes will occur after the recent release of the gender pay gap figures by the Women Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), which left many confused and disarmed as to how and why pay inequity persists in 2024.  

However, Gill is committed to dismantling the assumed barriers surrounding the male-dominated construction industry in a bid to prove how rewarding and inclusive a career it can be.  

At her first job on a construction site, French-born Gill experienced a blinding epiphany – a realisation of the power and might of a well-oiled machine, and what can result from highly organised and collaborative construction projects. 

The future Urban Core founder was onsite at the 2008 refurbishment of the Queen Victoria Building (QVB), a beloved Sydney icon, when she was rendered transfixed by an escalator being installed into the building. 

“I was looking at these gigantic escalators hovering in this heritage atrium with cranes everywhere and I just thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life,” says Gill. 

“It was a real trigger – I thought, this is exactly what I want to be doing.”

However, the initial wave of excitement and elation was quickly replaced by confusion regarding the demographic on the job. 

“Of course, the question after that was why are there no women here? This is so much fun!” remembers Gill.

And so began a journey that continues to this day. Gill is determined to incentivise a career in the construction industry for women in any way, shape or form.

Workplace adapting to women

The WGEA figures released two weeks ago under the federal government’s election commitment to squelch the gender pay gap produced outrage and bewilderment. The gap refers to the difference between what men and women are paid at the same organisation. 

Not only have some of the most renowned organisations in Australia clocked in whopping rates – Watpac Construction has a 41.6 percent gap and Virgin has a 41.7 percent gap – but brands, where women are primary customers, have tallied concerningly wide gaps, such as the clothes chain Forever New – a 50.1 percent gap – and jeweller Pandora – 47.2 percent.  

Prue Gilbert is the CEO of Grace Papers, a career coaching business that empowers employees and leaders to create “happy, safe and gender-balanced workforces.” 

Gilbert admits that while aiming for a non-existent gap is unrealistic and unattainable, the recent WGEA pay gap figures have caught people by surprise.

“Companies have introduced different flexible work policies, practices and other systemic controls around recruitment and promotion processes,” says Gilbert. “I think there will have been an assumption that it would have been better than what it was.”

The gender pay gap falls victim to unclear and ambiguous explanations and a lack of transparency as to what it actually measures and reveals. Gilbert implores for organisations allegedly prioritising gender pay parity to stay on top of the data and refrain from merely “tracking symptoms” of pay inequity.

“Use your data and look at where those gaps are opening, because what gets measured matters to leaders and employees,” says Gilbert.

Urban Core completed the construction for Humphrey’s Hotel in One Hurstville Plaza, New South Wales.

Unlearning outdated and damaging approaches

Gender inequality in the workforce is ignited by workplaces failing to adapt to the needs of women, whether that be effectively drafted maternal leave, a lack of guidance regarding the process of earning bonuses or higher paid overtime hours leaving women behind. 

“Overtime happens at night or different hours from a shift perspective, and often it’s not safe for women to be working at these different hours,” says Gilbert. 

Gilbert also criticises the explanation that family structures and women leaving the workforce to have children are to blame for the whopping gender pay gaps. 

The workplace should be evolving alongside the needs of women – paid parental, menstruation and menopause leave should be non-negotiable, alongside hosting online and flexibly delivered networking and personal development events to allow women to access a sense of connection and identity within the workplace while away on maternity leave. 

Offering flexible work arrangements would possibly remedy the glaring gender pay gaps that result from women not being in higher paying jobs.

Invest in workplace gender equality initiatives and reap the rewards

Companies and organisations would be wise to guide and nurture women through caregiving experiences and make them feel capable of returning to work. Gilbert emphasises the immeasurable benefits of a diverse and complex workplace. 

“You can make experiences like parental leave awesome for individuals and organisations, particularly in tight labour markets where there is very little movement,” says Gilbert.

“It can be an opportunity to put people into different stretch opportunities, but leaders need to be able to reflect and learn how to see parental leave differently.”

When psychological safety and employee wellbeing are pursued, workplaces will be better placed to achieve gender balance and narrow the gaps. Gilbert urges organisations to follow suit of the many companies who are becoming WGEA Employer of Choice for Gender Equality. 

“These organisations are implementing relevant processes and ensuring these workplace gender equality issues are executive priorities,” says Gilbert. 

“And when you start to do that, you start to close the gaps.”

Frustrations in architecture prompted a pivot 

Before having an epiphany at the majestic QVB, Gill studied and practised as an architect. However, the long wait times and delays in executing a project left her feeling stagnant. 

“I worked on a lot of projects that never happened,” says Gill. “I felt like I was documenting jobs that were over budget.”

Gill predicted she would find fulfilment in construction, as the projects come to the builder when they are “ready to go off the ground”. She entered with a preconceived notion of what the industry demanded and was quickly humbled.

“Even though I was an architect and thought I knew everything about construction, they certainly didn’t see it that way,” says Gill. “I came in at a kind of low level of a hierarchy, doing the coffee runs and making photocopies.”

Changing and reforming the industry

Gill quickly became motivated to dive head-first into drawing women into the industry and overhaul recruitment processes. To do this, she needed to start a company. As a female-led and founded company, Urban Core had the power to actively avoid gender pay gaps and equalise the playing field in a thoughtful and meticulous way. 

“I realised I could have a big impact by hiring as many women as I want, and taking as long as I want to go and find them,” she says. 

Gill was eager to attract reputable clients and emerge as the preferred builder in the industry. Urban Core also has an end goal of acting as a beacon of hope for other industries and highlighting that a 50 percent female workforce in construction is possible by shattering assumptions.

“I want to try and show that construction is rewarding – that it’s fun, pays well and that there’s plenty of opportunities for men and women equally,” says Gill. 

While admitting that she holds a love-hate relationship with construction due to the various financial, sustainability and regulatory crises that plague the industry, Gill maintains the rewarding nature of a career in construction is “the world’s best kept secret.”

“We have so many issues and it’s very hard to be able to tackle everything, but it’s also an industry that has so much to offer.”

Humphrey’s Hotel in One Hurstville Plaza, New South Wales.

Imbuing construction with sophistication and pride 

Gill believes that changing the construction industry starts with elevating the level of sophistication associated with construction and changing public perception. She says it is wrongly dismissed as overly patriarchal and exclusive.

“There’s zero barriers to entering construction – you can be sleeping rough and knock on the door of a construction site and say that you feel like labouring today, or you can be an ex-prisoner and work in construction,” says Gill. 

While she is proud of this proclivity in construction to welcome anyone and everyone, it does produce an unavoidable and complicated reality. “We deal with some rough people, and that gives us the image that everything is dirty and heavy and there’s harassment and bullying,” says Gill.

Gill wants to see marketing campaigns combat the archaic and damaging assumptions pertaining to the industry. Gender parity in construction could be achieved by busting the myth that construction is synonymous with hard hats, fluoro vests, boots and concrete. 

“You can wear a suit and jacket and heels and work in construction. You can have a Master’s degree and have excellent business acumen and work in construction,” says Gill. 

She also wants to see the entry requirements for construction altered, so that the industry is no longer deemed a “last resort”, particularly by school leavers. “I want to make this an industry of choice – and not just an industry to get into because you didn’t get the high ATAR for law or medicine,” Gill says.

Irreplaceable satisfaction of a collaborative job well done

Stereotypes regarding construction begin at a young age, according to Gill’s experiences operating a not-for-profit school outreach program called Next Generation Construction. 

She often begins by asking the room of students – generally all girls – if anyone has considered a career in construction, and very few hands will fly into the air in solidarity.

Gill’s routine involves displaying a photo of a standard construction site and pointing out all the jobs that you “can’t see” to break the ‘hard hats and fluoro vests in construction’ tropes. 

Architects, services engineers, certifiers, lawyers, estimators, business developers and project managers all have vital roles in the industry and this proves that construction involves an all-encompassing and vast ecosystem of roles and responsibilities. 

Gill asks the audience again if they would consider a career in construction and suddenly some students are abandoning the stanch ‘no’ stance to working in construction. 

“I show this TimeLapse of a job coming together and everyone’s so impressed because it’s so tangible – and exciting,” says Gill.

For Gill, the exciting nature of construction lies in the teamwork and camaraderie, in addition to the gratification of a successfully completed job – which she still finds “mesmerising”. 

The post-production period, for lack of a better word, is also a major perk of the industry, Gill believes, as seeing people enjoy a space such as a hospitality venue or community area is immensely rewarding. 

Psychological safety to construction 

Urban Core naturally brings a different philosophy and perspective to construction and demonstrates the rewards of diversity in business are far-reaching. Gill says industry feedback revolves around Urban Core being a refreshing point of difference. 

“I think our positioning is very much underdog,” says Gill. “This gives us more grit – we feel like because we are the underdog, we need to go a little bit further than the others.”

The slight minority status fostered greater determination and encouraged the company to be persuasive, convincing and self-assured in its infancy stages through to now. 

Urban Core’s business philosophy is defined by a pursuit towards social innovation and equality of representation – there is always an equal balance of men and women in client meetings – that contributes to the company’s offering of psychological safety.

“The feedback I get is that people feel quite safe around us,” says Gill. 

“And this difference is what diversity brings to the table – people can talk to us, understand us and listen to us.”

Sameness limits innovation and advances 

Homogeneity and a lack of diversity inhibit experimentation and leaps in creativity and innovation, says Gill. 

“The reality is, when you have a team meeting on a large job, and these 15 people are all male, white and similarly aged, the natural instinct for any man who comes in that room is to want to fit in and agree with what everyone else is saying,” she says.

“You lose that creativity that comes from people having different opinions.”

Gill is inspired to have a different opinion and philosophy when looking different in a group. “You naturally have an incentive to voice a different opinion. You almost feel compelled.” 

Respectful collaboration and discussion ensues via a soundboard of new ideas, assisted by Urban Core creating an environment where people feel empowered to suggest going in different directions.

Reversing long-entrenched standards

Gill is proud of the relatively equal senior leadership team at Urban Core, however, the higher paying site supervision roles are male-dominated, and office support is generally female-dominated and lower paying. She says it unfortunately becomes a gendered lack of interest. 

“It’s hard to find women who want to do site management, and it’s equally hard to find men who want to do office support,” says Gill. “I’d love to be able to reverse that, but it’s hard.” 

Site management is notoriously difficult to make appealing to families. “It’s six days a week, with super long commutes and a 6am start,” says Gill.

Offering flexible work arrangements would go a long way in remedying the glaring gender pay gaps that result from women not being in higher paying jobs. 

Gill also advocates for a definition overhaul regarding what constitutes ‘full-time’ work. She says that although a part-time work week looks different to full-time work, the discipline and passion remain. Flexible work arrangements can effectively enable greater productivity dividends. 

“Full-time employees work a hundred percent of the time, but they may only give you 80 or 85 percent of their focus,” says Gill. “Whereas, someone who’s there three days a week for 60 percent of the salary will probably give you a hundred percent of their focus for almost three days.”

Future-proofing construction 

The successive generation of school leavers will inevitably possess a different set of skills than those who have left school in the last 20 years. Gill is conscious that young people are digitally astute and have a strong understanding of personal wellbeing, boundaries and limits in the workforce, which should necessitate a focus on future-proofing the industry.

“For me, it’s not just about attracting women, but attracting everyone,” she says. “I love construction, so I’m very positive about it, but I can see why it’s not attractive to lots of people. I feel like that is where we can turn it around.”

Urban Core champions a diversity and sustainability first approach, even though Gill admits that incorporating sustainable practices into projects is difficult, as some people are still apprehensive due to the cost factor. 

However, she maintains that if you make something a priority, it will happen, evident via Urban Core’s strive for equality in the workplace that has seen the business cultivate a positive and admired reputation.

“We always had this goal of having 40 percent women, and that then became 50 percent women,” says Gill.

Slashing barriers of entry 

Masters Builders Australia has recently launched a multifaceted policy platform called Breaking Ground in an effort to increase the participation of women in the industry. Women account for 15 percent of the Australian construction industry, with only three percent of women working onsite. 

“Workplace shortages are putting immense pressure on our ability to meet housing targets, and we believe women will play a vital role in rectifying that,” says Master Builders Australia CEO Denita Wawn. 

Breaking Ground’s aims include providing unbiased career advice, hands-on experience and flexibility for workers who require time off for maternity leave, parent’s leave and carer’s leave.

“Increased female participation lifts productivity, boosts the economy, facilitates financial independence, assists in developing an inclusive and diverse culture and meets the much-needed workforce shortages the building and construction industry is facing,” says Wawn.

The gender pay gap figures released by WGEA demand cultural change to not only attract women to the industry, but make them feel comfortable, confident and valued, and avoid the all-too-familiar narrative of women jumping through hoops for the workforce, and getting nothing in return. 

Photography supplied by Urban Core. 

JLL facility manager Divya Thaper is hopeful for a future of equal representation.

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