HomeDiversityShedding the stereotypes and taking centre stage

Shedding the stereotypes and taking centre stage

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Lisa Hogben has over 15 years of experience in rail and is a board director with the NAWIC Australia. The fight for equality in rail is not yet over, she says.

Research carried out in Norway looking into women’s representation on boards has found that 33% is the critical mass. When you get to one-third, the culture changes.

“If the percentage is lower than this, the effect is little more than symbolic. It is when women feel that there are several of them, that they are not sitting alone at the table, that they begin to exercise their power” Siri Terjesen, 2016.

It’s reasonable to surmise that the same principles apply outside of the boardroom, and that means that there are exciting times ahead for the global construction industry.

Focus on the intangible

In Australia, women’s representation in the construction industry is tracking at 13.4% according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which means there is a world of opportunity ahead of us. But big results require absolute unwavering commitment, and in the rail and construction industry when it comes to becoming more gender diverse and inclusive, our women are telling us that we are not always focusing on the right things. And the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) is listening.

There’s no doubt that the rail, engineering, and construction industries are getting better at talking about equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), but when trying to ‘fix’ the underrepresentation of women in the workplace, we often default to the tangible, like the lack of women’s toilets on site, or ill-fitting PPE. Of course, these topics are hugely important but these are basic human rights – we shouldn’t be debating these things anymore.

What we see less of in our industry, is a focus on the intangible – the culture, values, and behaviours that create the (sometimes difficult) lived experience of women and other minorities in construction – this is often in the ‘too hard box’, because we’re much more comfortable building stuff, right?

But is a failure to acknowledge the importance of what it feels like to work in construction for women holding us back from meaningful change? I asked a group of brilliant women who work in rail, to talk to me about their experiences – all wished to remain anonymous, and their names have been changed.

Workplace culture

Victoria works in passenger experience and she has considered leaving the rail industry multiple times in her career, always because of the culture:

“It was tough to adjust to a field that saw me as different from my male colleagues; where I received feedback on my personality not my performance. I’ve stayed because I want to make rail a better place for diverse people. I’ve been able to earn my place at the leadership table and I want to use my voice to make the industry more inclusive”.

Victoria now forms part of the leadership team for two major projects and loves the fact that her work enriches communities, connects people from all walks of life, and leaves a legacy.

In her view, the industry needs to work on being more inclusive, creating the space and culture for diverse people to achieve their potential and have brilliant careers in rail, and she is not alone.

Proving yourself

Elizabeth has worked across multiple major rail projects, but went as far as actually handing in her resignation due to the culture of her workplace, although she was persuaded to stay by her male colleagues.

“I didn’t feel valued, respected or supported, in fact I was actively undermined,” she says. “My role and responsibilities were unclear and I didn’t feel like I was working as part of a team. It was my male colleagues who persuaded me to stay. They were unwaveringly clear about my value, and I un-resigned.”

This feeling of needing to ‘convince’ people of your competence and skills is a common tale among women in male-dominated environments, with many women feeling that they have to work harder and do more than their male colleagues to even be noticed, let alone to be given a chance to do something new or different, or considered for a promotion. Women in male-dominated environments are often seen as a risk or an experiment, or a troublemaker.

Family matters

For Amy, a qualified civil engineer and lawyer, the feeling of being held back from opportunities turned into outright discrimination when she started her family:

“I have worked as an engineer in various male-dominated industries in the planning, design and delivery of infrastructure projects, and as a woman the focus for me has always been on trying to ‘fit in’ and not be seen as ‘different’.

“After having my first child and coming back from parental leave part time, I was told that I needed to ‘kick some goals in order to be seen in the same light’.

“I was told I was no longer eligible to return to my previous role as a Team Manager, because I worked part-time and was instead given short-term projects to manage.”

Penalising women, whether overtly or covertly for having children is an ongoing problem in construction, and it means that we are missing out on the wonderful talents and contributions of such a huge proportion of our female working population.

How different might workplaces and policies be when it comes to families, if women held the critical mass in decision-making and leadership roles, or more radical still, if men were the ones who went through pregnancy, childbirth and breast-feeding? I’m pretty sure many women would be quite willing to pass over the responsibility!

The cost of inaction

I would love to tell you that these stories are rare, but they’re not. I would place a bet that every woman in rail, engineering, and construction, from the site to the office to the boardroom, could tell you tales that would make you gasp. And whether we want to face up to it or not, there is a cost of doing nothing.

In fact a 2021 BIS Oxford Economics report, named just that, found multiple potential benefits to improving female representation in construction such as bringing about cultural and behavioural change, decreasing aggressive behaviour and bullying, and improved attention to detail and communication. Conversely, if we do nothing, these are the potential costs of failure.

So where do we start? How do we attract and retain women in our organisations and tap into the amazing knowledge, skills and experience they have to offer? Well, here are some suggestions:
Do better than you must when it comes to policies which disproportionately affect women, like flexible working and parental leave. Bare minimum isn’t enough.

When bullying, harassment and other unacceptable behaviour is happening, don’t just move the persecuted and consider it resolved. Deal with the bad behaviour, even if the perpetrator is “really good at their job”.

Don’t base a salary on some arbitrary uplift on their previous earnings – this perpetuates the gender pay gap. Pay what the role is worth.

Pass the mic because it doesn’t always have to be you. Create a safe environment for women and other minorities, and give us a platform. We have some things we want to say.

Create, encourage, and support gender equality networks in your organisation, and allow them to be led by passionate people. If that’s not what you have now, change it.

And finally, if you find yourself irritated, uncomfortable, or intimidated by the change happening around you, check yourself before you check others – a changemaker is not the same as a troublemaker.

National Associations of Women in Construction (NAWIC) exist all around the world and are led by passionate volunteers working hard to create the change we need to see.

We’re transforming the industry in more ways than one, why not come and be a part of our network?


Image credit: NAWIC / istockphoto.com