Like many other women working in occupations or industries which historically have been male bastions, women in the construction industry are finding ways to support each other and foster an environment in which they are able to make their best contribution says ACTU President, Jennie George.

Megan Francis (President, National Association of Women in Construction)

Denise Drysdale (MC for the night)

Distinguished guests…


Thank you for the opportunity to present the keynote address to this, the second Awards of Excellence for Women in Construction.


I was very pleased to be able to accept your invitation because I’m always delighted to meet with other women – and men – who not only share a broad vision of society where everyone, regardless of their sex, is able to develop his or her talents and aspire to any job, but are doing something about it.


Unfortunately, we are reminded too often that there are still people around who actively prevent women from seeking to work where they wish. But in many ways the main barriers to women entering predominantly male occupations and industries, like construction, are less obvious and more insidious: the humps of tradition, the hillocks of history, the hurdles of inertia, the fear of change.


While I’d never claim to have any expertise in construction, I can, I believe, understand and empathise with women working in male dominated environments because, as President of the ACTU, I’m a woman in a “non-traditional” job myself.


Historically, union officials have been overwhelmingly men, happily existing in a “matey” environment. I am pleased to be able to report, however, that it’s changing and I’m being joined by more and more talented women in leadership positions.


Like many other women working in occupations or industries which historically have been male bastions, women in the construction industry are finding ways to support each other and foster an environment in which they are able to make their best contribution.


Australians can be proud to be world leaders in a great many fields. But there is no joy in the fact that Australia continues to be a world leader in terms of the segregation of the work force by sex.


Australian women are more highly segregated into a narrow range of jobs, than their sisters in most countries around the world.


There are just over three million women workers in Australia. Almost two thirds of them – that’s around two million women – are employed in just two occupational categories: clerks and salespersons/personal service workers.


Now, I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, that women from your industry are a much rarer breed. At around 15% of the construction industry work force, there’s less than 50,000 of you Australia-wide.


Unfortunately, there are even fewer than that who are members of unions. While around a third of men working in the construction industry are members of unions, only six per cent of women belong to their union.


This is, of course, a situation I’d like to see change. The facts show that union members are better paid and enjoy better conditions, career paths and training. And the more women joining unions, they more they become responsive to your needs and your agenda.


But, in addition to your relatively small numbers in the industry, there are many – too many – areas where women are present in even smaller numbers.


For example, the 1995 figures showed that women’s participation in engineering is the lowest of any occupational grouping at 2.1%. The figures for trades are better, but we’re not ready to break out the champagne to toast equality yet.


And, of course, like many other industries, there are certain jobs that are likely to be undertaken by women, such as clerical and administrative tasks on construction sites or in head offices, which are often undervalued relative to the wages being paid to men working elsewhere in the industry.


I know that, in this audience, I’m asking a rhetorical question when I ask why is it important to challenge the sex segregation of the work force?


Firstly, we should work towards removing artificial and outdated constrictions on the composition of the work force, so that people, regardless of their sex, are able to make the best possible contribution that they can to that occupation or industry.


Secondly, women should be free to benefit from a broader range of choices about what they wish to do or where their talents lie, when considering their working lives.


Thirdly, eliminating the rigid delineation between what is men’s and women’s work is an important step to narrowing the gap between women’s and men’s earnings.


Despite the hard work of Australia’s unions to improve the status of women’s occupations, and thereby increase the remuneration to women working in them, there continues to be many instances where women’s work is undervalued and underpaid, relative to men’s work.


Recently the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers’ Union starkly highlighted this by pointing out that their predominantly male union members who are employed as animal keepers at the Sydney Zoo, earn more than their predominantly women members who are employed as child care workers.


The old adage “pay peanuts, you get monkeys” takes on a whole new meaning in this context.


Those of us who are committed to ensuring that women get a fair and equal go, need a two pronged approach:


Firstly, we need to check that the jobs performed by women are fairly rewarded, relative to comparable men’s jobs, and remedy the situation if it is unfair.


Over the years, the union movement has run many such cases in the Industrial Relations Commission and will continue to do so, despite the fact that the current federal government has changed the rules to make it more difficult for unions to do this.


Secondly, we must eliminate the attitudinal and other barriers that prevent or discourage women from working in male dominated occupations and industries – and vice versa.


Sounds simple, doesn’t it?


I’ve already taken enough of your time without detailing how this might be achieved. While there is much for women to learn from other women who have enjoyed some successes in this, each industry has its own history and environment which must be taken into account.


It is up to bodies like the National Association of Women in Construction to determine what approaches need to be taken in your industry. Your organisation is an important tool for increasing the opportunities for women in the construction industry and ensuring that their contributions are recognised and valued.


You have many allies in this task, including in the unions that represent workers in the construction industry.


I’d like to be able to say that unions have always been committed to eliminating discrimination and opening up new opportunities for women, as they are now.


Unfortunately, unions over the years have too often reflected the prevailing attitudes of the day, including seeking to exclude women from particular occupations or jobs in order to maintain the privileges for the male membership.


There was a famous incident in the second half of last century when Louisa Lawson, mother of Henry and an author and journalist in her own right, established a newspaper for women called “The Dawn”. Louisa employed only women on her paper, which outraged the male Typographers’ Union. They proceeded to organise rosters of their male members to take up positions in the building opposite the papers’ office and bounce sunlight off mirrors into the eyes of the women, so that they were unable to typeset the pages.


Thankfully, that was more than 100 years ago, they didn’t succeed and I’m pleased to say that attitudes have progressed, both in the community as well as in the union ranks.


This is in no small part due to the tremendous efforts of women unionists – ordinary members, as well as paid officials and employees – in insisting that their organisations change to include them and take on the issues that are important to them.


I said earlier that there are many, many people in unions that share the vision of your organisation: a better construction industry and rewarding jobs for women within it.


In November, Australia’s unions are holding their second conference for women who work in male dominated industries and occupations.


The conference is just one of the many steps which unions must take to ensure that they are aware of what changes need to be made to open up their industries to women’s participation.

Finally, congratulations in advance to tonight’s award winners. You are, no doubt, role models and mentors to the many women who will seek to follow in your footsteps.


Well done, sisters.


ACTU President, Jennie George


National Association Of Women In Construction Victorian/Tasmanian 1997 Awards Of Excellence, 17 October 1997