How to battle society’s expectations
With a background in rugby and growing up alongside four older brothers Caitríona Bergin is no stranger to the dynamic between genders. Or in the construction industry for that matter, having established the Women in Construction and Quarrying Steering Group in the summer of 2021.
“There are so many parallels,” she says of the challenge facing the industry and that of the rugby community from her work as a rugby development officer.
She was approached by Future Cast CEO JJ O’Hara to tap into her experience and insight to address the gender imbalance found in the industry.
Future Cast is an Innovation, Education, and R&D centre focussed on the Construction and Quarrying industries, and is a major supporter of the Women in Construction and Quarrying Steering Group.
Caitríona starts with some of the more obvious things that still get overlooked.
“Get your toilets right because when a woman takes that brave step into an environment that is traditionally maledominated the last thing she needs is to be unable to do something as normal as using the toilet,” she says.
“If we’re going to encourage more younger women into STEM subjects and construction-related fields, we need to make sure the environment they’re going into is conducive and receptive to having women there.”
She describes how for a woman to enter the field they are already “battling against the societal expectations of being a woman, so to have to battle again for basic needs when you get there isn’t right”.
Backing diversity solutions
Another common oversight is in the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for women. This is an issue that impacts across all male-dominated industries, which makes the oversight all the more glaring.
The common approach she explains, “is to shrink it and pink it” but there is a fundamental flaw in that approach she says.
“Women are not simply smaller men. We’re a different shape altogether.”
A poignant example she gives is when a woman might be pregnant.
“Simply giving her an XL man’s size won’t cut it, not when that means her sleeves will be oversized creating a whole new safety risk,” she adds.
“At its core it’s not about women looking for extra treatment, in fact it’s exactly the same treatment they need; the right tools and equipment to carry out the job correctly and safely.
“It’s better for the industry itself if we have a diverse workforce that represents the people that we’re trying to construct for.
“If we’re trying to build houses for the entirety of society we should have representation from that society within the industry in order to make the more appropriate choices.
“What I am seeing in the industry is a lot of enthusiasm from people saying yes we want more women, yes we want to be more diverse and more women in apprenticeships, but what I am not seeing is a lot of people willing to back it financially.”
Without significant financial backing it means the work of the steering group is done on a largely voluntary basis.
“So, we have to ask what we can offer as practical solutions initially but also what are scalable and sustainable structures that we can put in place to encourage younger women into the industry in the first place.”
Along with the support from Future Cast, Caitríona describes a campaign to shift society from the earliest stages away from the biases of the past.
At this moment that includes visiting schools to showcase the women working in construction, “to show boys and girls that this is not just an industry for men”.
For that reason she is always on the lookout for women in the industry that would be willing to commit “one afternoon a month or so” to visit schools and describe their work.
“Future Cast have resources there to assist financially to make it possible so there’s no personal cost, just a little investment of your time to show these children what you do”.
How it’s done Down Under
What’s next? First there is work ongoing to roll out a Transition Year programme to help introduce young girls to the industry and STEM fields, including guidance for teachers and career counsellors to be able to point girls in the best direction into the industry.
“The elephant in the room is that because this is a whole of society issue it can get lost between the different governmental departments with no single dedicated response,” she says.
Listing every departmental office, she describes an acute mandate from each to address the gender imbalance in the industry, from Housing to Education, through Transport to Rural Development.
“What we need to see is a strong commitment from all to perhaps cofund a dedicated response to provide solutions.”
There are international examples too that Ireland can learn from, including in the Australian State of Victoria where the Government’s Building Equality Policy (BEP) will mandate female representation with “quite realistic achievable mandated quotas”.
For example, four per cent of labour hours must be accounted for by female apprentices and trainees in at least three per cent of each trade role.
Applying only to public works contracts valued over AU$20 million, crucially, this was announced with a two-year lead in time and a provision that allows for tendering of public works so long as a company has a viable strategy to meet future targets.
“People often balk at mandatory gender
quotas,” she admits. “But frankly if the Government can mandate digitalisation and a host of other mechanisms, then they should really look at this.”
The key she explains would be to “consult with the industry itself” as to what ambitious but entirely achievable quota should be applied and how that can be accommodated.