In anticipation of the purple-decked panels and conversations over cupcakes, here are three common phrases we need to rethink – perhaps, even stop using – when we talk about gender equity in construction this International Women’s Day. Before you ask, I did not need to make up these phrases. I have heard them at functions celebrating women and in collateral designed to attract women into the industry - hopefully, we can start to challenge and rethink them.
Phrase 1: We need more women to choose construction so the culture changes.
I understand that a key ingredient for culture change can be a critical mass (~25-30%) of a minoritised cohort to help drive that change. However, in construction, we don’t have a ‘women problem’ – we have a gender problem. It is high time that we stop sacrificing the physical and mental wellbeing of women in the hopes that they will have a magical impact on the culture. Not every woman is a gender expert (they have often been employed to do a very different job) nor are they always gender equity champions (see: internalised misogyny). It is unfair to place the additional burden on women to be those who drive culture change – especially when we do not hold their male colleagues to the same expectation (see: “boys will be boys”).
Studies have shown that women in construction have poor mental health – at increased rates compared to their male counterparts. It would be foolish to underestimate the physical impacts a poor culture has on women, even though this may be under-researched at present. Weathering – premature aging due to exposure to social inequity – is the real and physical impact of living in a constant stress state, being hypervigilant, and experiencing burnout. This has been shown to impact the mortality of Black mothers in America. I wonder, in 20 years’ time, what will we be saying about the physical health of the women who stuck it out to help change (if at all) the culture in construction?
Instead, we should be expecting men, of all ages and stages in their career, to foster an inclusive culture which would not only benefit women, but people of all genders – including themselves. I firmly believe that with the appropriate support, learning, leadership, and accountability, men could drive a culture change in construction that would finally see them happy for their daughters to work in the industry (because many, would not have their daughters work here. But somehow, it’s ok for the women of today?).
Phrase 2: You will cop it as a woman, but nothing good comes easy.
I believe in communicating realistic expectations of women’s experiences when they join an industry over-represented by men, like construction. However, phrases like this are incredibly problematic as they normalise and even accept the anticipated negative experiences of women.
Absolutely, good things come from hard work – without a doubt. But hard work is not enduring sexual harassment. Hard work is not being othered, excluded, objectified, or discriminated against on a daily basis. We should want more for women. We should expect more of their experience. This baseline is so, so low that we would trip over it if we raised our eyes to the horizon, which is where we should be looking.
Instead of telling women this is normal, our leaders – particularly the men – should be clearly setting the expectation that negative behaviour towards women, and any other minoritised group is completely unacceptable (see: David Morrison reading the Riot Act to the Australian Army). And when negative behaviours do occur – across all levels of the gender-based violence pyramid, we hold people to account even when they are a ‘good bloke’ or ‘a nice person, really’. We need this accountability for the insidious and constant microaggressions, not just the severe cases of harassment or discrimination.
Phase 3: The guys will respect you when you show you are good at your job.
Ha. Sure they will.
Putting aside the likeability-competency tightrope that women juggle in the workplace, this phrase creates a false narrative that a hostile work environment for women is just really one focussed on excellence. If you’re good enough, they will be nice to you. They won’t objectify, exclude, or harass you. Just be good at your job!! A pursuit of excellence should not be at the cost of your physical and mental wellbeing. It should, in fact, be focused on creating an environment in which you can thrive and thus perform at a high level. It should not demean you.
In this industry we are all paid well to do good work, and a key principle of the workplace – whether it be in the office or on site – is respect and decent treatment of each other. If you are an average performer or an excellent performer, you still deserve respect.
So, instead of hiding behind the pursuit of excellence, I encourage you to challenge the excuses we might be making for poor or hostile behaviour. It isn’t excellence that’s the problem – it’s bias. Let’s name it, so we can fix it.