“I feel like I would be intimidated”: New study probes why girls don’t go into construction

Despite the wide diversity of roles in construction, the industry is invisible to teenage girls considering career options, a year-long study in Australia has found.

And where impressions had formed, a fear of gender-based discrimination emerged as one of the main barriers, as did parental preferences for careers deemed more aspirational.

One surprising finding, however, was that students from all-girls schools were significantly more likely to study construction project management at university.

No one would listen to me because I am a girl

The study, which involved interviewing high school students, was carried out by Dr Phillippa Carnemolla (pictured), Senior Research Fellow at University of Technology, Sydney’s (UTS) School of Built Environment.

To probe why construction remains Australia’s most male-dominated industry, Carnemolla investigated pupils’ perceptions through interviews and by analysing UTS enrolment data for its Bachelor of Construction Project Management.

She found that construction was "not in the lexicon" of career aspirations for high-achieving pupils, despite the wide range of professional roles in the industry, from engineering and project management to consulting and law.

Nor was it equated with other topics in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) category.

"In interviewing the students, it was clear that they had little knowledge of the construction industry and its potential career options," said Carnemolla. 

"The fact that it is a growth industry and one of Australia’s three largest industries was also unknown."

None of the interviewed students could recall speaking to a successful woman with a career in construction, or could visualise themselves in a construction role.

The research also revealed that "many girls didn’t believe they would be respected or heard in the construction industry," said Carnemolla.

"Why would I want to be in the construction industry? No one would listen to me because I am a girl," said one participant.

"I can’t see myself doing construction at all. I feel like I would be intimidated," said another, adding: "I feel like I would be pushed over, if someone tells me I am doing something wrong I will back off."

But data analysis also showed that females from all-girls schools were significantly more likely to choose to study construction at university.

55% of girls offered placements in the UTS Construction Project Management degree as school-leavers came from all-girls high schools. Only 9% of schools in the state of New South Wales are girls-only.

Concluding, Carnemolla said: "If the industry expects female high school students to aspire to a construction career, it needs to rebrand itself not only to the students, but also to parents and schools, in order to overcome the barriers of lack of interest by students, influence of parents and lack of guidance towards the industry from school networks."

Commenting on the findings, Professor Heather MacDonald, Head of the UTS School of Built Environment said universities face a challenge.

"Many young women don’t understand the range of skills and knowledge entailed in the field, nor the significant opportunities to be part of major projects that transform the built environment," said Professor MacDonald.

"One of the key messages we hear from our industry partners is the importance of expanding the recruitment base for Construction Project Managers – not only to ensure that the industry reflects the diversity of Australian society, but also to ensure project managers bring a wide range of skills and experiences to construction in the 21st century."

The report, "Why Would I Want to do That for a Career?", was commissioned in 2018 by the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), as part of a $20,000 scholarship to Dr Phillippa Carnemolla, sponsored by CULT design.

View it here. 

Image: Senior Research Fellow, Dr Phillippa Carnemolla (By Andy Roberts)

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  1. Generally speaking, Construction can be very intimidating not even considering the gender aspects of it. Boldly physical in the productions field execution of work, however; there are many fields in construction that perfectly fits female to avoid the physical jobsite work effects. Such positions as Construction Cost Accountant, Procurement, Project Manager, Bid Proposal Agent, Construction Lawyer, Estimators and host of others.

    The industry have got work to do in order to obviate gender discrimination and create more opportunities in schools and colleges to attract next generations of CONSTRUCTORS. From two decades ago to today is like night and day, there were no single female Super, PM, Executive, Cost Accountant or Purchasing Agent, only a few role models available. The industry must perform incredible job of hiring more female. I’m proud to have been working along side of many female PM and their “PATIENCIES” of handling projects are very commendable.

    I do understand that the industry have work to do before female are fully integrated and recognized for their contributions. This is where Education, cultural change and parenting will all play important roles in order to benefits the society at-large. The industry can start by sponsoring through scholarship in areas of Math and Science for girls at age of 12 somehow to boost their interests.

    At the same time, parents and teachers have to get involved. There is need to show our girls how careers in construction management and the trades can open up tremendous opportunities for the benefits of the society.

  2. Yes… and the wolf-whistles and hassle in sites are likely to be present; which are not meant, on the whole, to be intimidating but are often a crude “salutation” to vie-la-difference. …However, there are the other motives with some of those tactless few so , how to put that protection in place is a Problem.
    It depends on the type of worker recruited and also re-education of attitude.
    As for competence acceptance, managers and those responsible for recruitment would be short-sighted or crazy not to enroll fully the talents available whatever the gender.

  3. I’ve been in residential and/or commercial construction and related trades most of my adult life.. and I love it. I was on site for years, hard hat and boots, getting dirty and working hard, I learned a lot… and once your crew gets to know you, they will be your allies 100% against anyone who gets handsy etc… I’ve experienced that a number of times working with different crews in different industries. If you’re there to do your job, and learn, and be a team member, and yes, have a thick skin sometimes, you can go far in construction and love the heck out of it… now I’m on the design/estimating side but my experience has proved immeasurably valuable in this role. I sincerely hope that more women take a chance on the trades, lace up their boots, and go build things.

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