In light of her talk at the recent Inside Construction Expo, the National Association of Women in Construction’s (NAWIC) Christina Yiakkoupis shares her career journey in hopes of inspiring change and plugging the leaky pipeline in construction.
By Christina Yiakkoupis, national chairperson at NAWIC.
At NAWIC our vision is to achieve 25 per cent female participation in construction by 2025. Given we are currently sitting at just over 13 per cent overall and only 2 per cent in trades, this is a huge goal. While we won’t hit 25 per cent in the next two years, our vision is helping to start conversations and encourage industry and government to take real steps towards change.
At NAWIC, we refer to the challenges associated with attraction and retention in the construction industry as the “leaky pipeline”.
This is my personal journey and how I navigated the leaky pipeline to have a career that I thoroughly enjoy in the construction industry.
When I was in high school, I told my careers councillor that I wanted to be an architect. She looked at my grades, saw I was good at maths and physics and suggested I also put down engineering courses in my preferences. Had I not had this conversation I wouldn’t have ended up where I am today. I had no idea what an engineer does or what a career in construction would look like.
In my first lecture, there were around 500 males and approximately 50 females in a giant lecture room. We were asked to raise our hand if we knew what an engineer does. About 20 per cent put their hands up. We were then asked to put our hands down if a parent or a relative is an engineer. There were very few hands left up.
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Making the construction industry more visible and open not only to students but also to parents is crucial in spreading the word and making everyone aware of the diverse careers that exist within construction. Dropout rates for university and apprenticeships are very high for males and even higher for females. More needs to be done as a bit of a ‘try before you buy’. There are many companies that are running great school programs, site visits for students and try-a-trade days. These sorts of schemes rolled out formally nationally would be a gamechanger.
Straight out of university I was employed by a Tier 1 builder as part of the structure team on a major project in South East Queensland. I was doing minimum 12-hour days, six days a week and I had a one and a half hour drive each way to get to and from work. As structure was wrapping up my work hours reduced. The hours of the rest of the team doing services and fitout increased. My manager pulled me aside and said that other team members had made him aware that I wasn’t working as many hours as the rest of the team. He asked if I thought this was okay. When I pointed out to him that I had done my long hours at the peak of structure, he agreed but said I needed to show the rest of the team that I was working hard and as such, I needed to increase my hours. This is a major challenge of the industry. The long work hours are not sustainable, and many people are not interested in making their whole life about work.
There are companies doing great things in this space. My current place of work has genuine flexibility with work hours and as long as your job is done there are no questions raised. As a result of this flexibility, when there is work, we are happy to do big days. When things are quieter, we are encouraged to make the most of it. This should be the industry norm.
I am not a parent but in my role at NAWIC I have had many conversations with people who are. Childcare and other related challenges are often viewed as a “women’s issue”, but this is not the case. The men in the industry want to be there for their kids – some are single parents; others want to be able to help out more at home. Onsite hours do not align with childcare hours and job sharing and part-time roles are hard to come by. A genuine shift in the expectation of long work hours in construction and a realignment of childcare hours is necessary to enable parents to work if that is what they choose to do.
According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the gender pay gap in Australia sits at 13 per cent. In construction, the pay gap is 30.6 per cent. That means that women have to work an extra 79 days to earn the same as their male counterparts. Many companies have identified this issue and have put in place processes to eliminate the gap over the next couple of years. We can and should do better.
While we are seeing more women on boards and in senior leadership positions, these numbers are still not sitting at 50/50. Implementing quotas is one way to start a real shift. Assessing boards with a diversity lens and making sure that there is representation will make a real change from the top down.
What can companies and government do?
- Stop talking and start being the change.
- Develop curriculum-based school programs.
- Implement Construction Industry Culture Taskforce (CICT) cultural standards as part of procurement requirements.
- Keep striving towards a national gender equity strategy and get on board with local state-based initiatives.
- Put gender on the tender – quotas for female participation and management representation.
- Develop childcare reforms to suit the construction industry, flexible workplace practices and policies.
- Fix pay gaps.
- Implement diversity, equity and inclusion training for staff and supportive mentoring systems.
What can you do?
Educate – from in school education through to senior leadership. Teach our next generation about the construction industry. Encourage lifelong learning for those around you. Individually continue seeking learning opportunities and be inclusive as your career progresses.
Advocate – speak up when something isn’t okay. Do not be a bystander. Share stories of success and celebrate positive outcomes for all people.
Community and culture – help each other out. Be part of the change you want to see for the industry.
Studies have found that real cultural change occurs at 30 per cent female participation. By implementing real change, we not only make the industry more inviting for women but also better for everyone who is already part of it. Remember, you can be what you can see.
Every action, no matter how small, is part of the shift and the change we want to see. We rise together.