Is the construction industry just a ‘boys’ club’?

According to McKinsey Global Institute, while progress has been made, women remain vastly underrepresented in construction globally. In most countries, they make up less than 10% of the construction workforce.

Having celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8, StarESG looks at how women are widening the range of expertise while closing the gender gap

THE construction industry has long been regarded as a male-dominated field, with historical records of women’s involvement in Malaysian construction being scarce.

However, recent trends and emerging data shed light on the changing landscape and the opportunities for women in this dynamic sector that includes more than manual labour.

Over the last couple of decades, universities are seeing a rise in the number of women graduating from construction programmes, sometimes surpassing their male counterparts.

Research published in the Malaysian Construction Research Journal (MCRJ)—dating as far back as 2015—highlights this educational surge, indicating a growing interest among women to pursue careers in construction.

The latest data from the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) indicates that our overall female labour force participation rate stands at 56.5 percent.

Despite the educational gains made by women in construction, a noticeable disparity remains between the number of female graduates and the representation of women in the industry’s workforce.

The construction industry is more than manual labour; it is a complex network of professions working together to turn ideas into buildings and infrastructure and is divided into three main sectors: building, infrastructure and industrial.

Each project progresses through stages like planning, construction, and inspection, with specialists like architects, engineers, and skilled labourers contributing their expertise. For instance, quantity surveyors estimate costs, project managers keep things on track, and lawyers ensure everything is legal and safe.

Specialised tradespeople like electricians, plumbers, and welders bring their specific skills to complete various construction tasks. From planning to building and everything in between, construction is a collaborative effort demanding a wide range of expertise.

Early positive influences

For the women in construction locally, Wanita Industri Binaan Malaysia (WIBM) president Datuk Ar Nafisah Radin shared that she was exposed to becoming an entrepreneur at an early age which helped her rise to the position she is in currently.“Initially, I was inclined towards design and entrepreneurship, influenced by observing my father’s business ventures and my mother’s entrepreneurial endeavours.

“However, when I was offered a government scholarship to study overseas in 1977, architecture was the only design-based course available. I embraced the opportunity, unaware at the time of the profound impact it would have on my life,” she explained.

She continued: “As I navigated through my career, I found myself drawn to the dynamic and multifaceted nature of architecture.

“My career started as an architect at the Public Works Department (JKR) headquarters in 1985, to being a partner at Veritas Architects from 1993 to 2000, and subsequently up till today as the founder of NR Design Group which has diversified as an architectural practice and interior design and build contractor. “The journey enriched my understanding of the industry and fuelled my passion for design and construction,” she said.

“I’m fortunate to have remarkable women mentors – the likes of Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datuk Seri Mohaiyani Shamsuddin, Datin Nadzley Nordin, Datuk Aishah Ahmad and many more – who truly inspire me and who blazed trails before me since the start of my career.

Morris (left) joined Unispace as Design senior principal in May of 2022. With her strong background and leadership, she was promoted to oversee the delivery team in addition to design team with over 20 team members in Asia. Meanwhile, Lee joined Unispace in 2017 as senior project manager. With her achievements and experience, she was promoted to Delivery principal to oversee all constructions across Asia.Morris (left) joined Unispace as Design senior principal in May of 2022. With her strong background and leadership, she was promoted to oversee the delivery team in addition to design team with over 20 team members in Asia. Meanwhile, Lee joined Unispace in 2017 as senior project manager. With her achievements and experience, she was promoted to Delivery principal to oversee all constructions across Asia.

“They all demonstrated the immense potential for women in the various fields, instilling in me the confidence to pursue my aspirations and challenge traditional norms,” she added.

Our neighbours in Singapore, on the other hand, have also seen an increase in the representation of women in Singapore’s workforce over the past decade, as their female LFPR stands at about 62.6 percent according to the Department of Statistics Singapore.

StarESG spoke to Joanne Morris and Lee Pui Kheng from Unispace Singapore to gain insight on what it’s like to be a woman in the construction field and how their experiences can differ from their male counterparts.

Morris is the Design and Delivery head whereas Lee is the Technical Delivery principle – both of whom have excelled in the construction industry and have seats at the leadership table. Lee boasts 12 years of industry experience and Morris has 18 years of experience under her belt.

Lee recalls that her father was a big influence to her career choices as he was in the building materials industry.

“Since young, I’ve always been fascinated by Lego sets. I feel that there is a magical and fulfilling property when you start with small building blocks which eventually become a beautiful, elegant and big structure,” Lee explained, adding that her interest in construction mainly stemmed from her early childhood taking apart and putting appliances back together too.

“So when I was at a crossroads before I entered college and I had to make the decision on what kind of career and major I wanted to do, I chose to do project management, and I’ve never looked back since,” Lee said.

For Morris, her experience also began close to home, beginning more “artistically” with sketches and drawings.

“My grandfather was an architect and saw that I had an eye for detail in being an artist. He would tell me that I have a natural knack for colours and design,” said Morris.

Despite initially intending to pursue a career in law, she instead took her grandfather’s words to heart and enrolled in interior design courses.

Challenging the industry

In summarising the challenges that women in construction commonly face, Morris said: “Early on, I did face some significant hurdles. In this industry, especially, I’ve been undermined and have faced comments about my gender, race and even appearance.”

Morris also said that the shift to virtual calls and meetings due to the Covid-19 pandemic had ironically helped.

“The virtual connection we had initially helped because people listened more [to what I have to say instead of how I look]. However, once they saw me, stereotypes emerged: ‘Oh, you’re short.’ It led to belittling of my skills,” she recounted.

Whilst a career journey in construction can be an isolating experience for some, it’s not a lone one since this is a common thread among women in industries considered ‘boy’s clubs’.

“One of the most pervasive challenges has been the stereotype that women are less capable or competent in technical and leadership roles within construction.

“This bias often manifests in subtle forms of discrimination, such as being overlooked for promotions or not being taken seriously in meetings and decision-making processes,” said Nafisah

Datuk Ar Nafisah began her career in 1986 as an architect in the Public Works Department (JKR) before leaving to join Veritas Architects in 1992. She has created a niche in designing green and sustainable buildings such as the “Diamond Building” for the Energy Commission Headquarters in Putrajaya, which was the first to gain the Platinum Green Building Index (GBI) in Malaysia and Green Mark rating from Singapore in 2012.Datuk Ar Nafisah began her career in 1986 as an architect in the Public Works Department (JKR) before leaving to join Veritas Architects in 1992. She has created a niche in designing green and sustainable buildings such as the “Diamond Building” for the Energy Commission Headquarters in Putrajaya, which was the first to gain the Platinum Green Building Index (GBI) in Malaysia and Green Mark rating from Singapore in 2012.

For Nafisah, she adopted several strategies to overcome these hurdles, maintaining that gender is not an excuse to underperform in her field.

“Firstly, I focussed on continually improving my professional skills and knowledge to demonstrate my competence and expertise in my field. By consistently delivering high-quality results, I have been able to earn the respect and recognition of both my contemporaries and clients.

“My strategy is to be treated like ‘one of the boys’ like taking up golf and cycling. These sports break the ice—‘if you cannot beat them, join them’,” she said.

In tandem, she actively sought out opportunities to challenge gender stereotypes and advocate for gender equality within the workplace.

“This has involved participating in mentorship programmes, speaking out against discriminatory practices, and actively supporting other women in the industry. By amplifying the voices of women and championing diversity and inclusion initiatives, I’ve endeavoured to create a more equitable and supportive work environment for everyone,” she added.

Diversifying perspectives

Having women in leadership positions in male-dominated industries like construction is essential for breaking the glass ceiling and driving innovation and business growth.“By breaking through traditional gender barriers and assuming leadership positions, women serve as role models and mentors for other women aspiring to advance in their careers. Their presence in leadership roles challenges stereotypes and biases, demonstrating that gender should not be a barrier to success in any industry,” explained Nafisah.

This helps to create a more inclusive and diverse workplace culture where everyone, regardless of gender, feels valued and empowered to contribute their ideas and talents.

She continued, pointing out that “research has shown that diverse leadership teams are more effective at driving innovation and business growth. When women are represented in leadership positions, organisations benefit from a wider range of perspectives and ideas, leading to more creative and innovative solutions”.

According to Nafisah, organisations are recognising the importance of fostering diverse and inclusive workplaces, not only as a matter of social responsibility but also as a strategic imperative for business success.

It also follows that diverse teams are better equipped to understand and serve diverse customer bases, leading to improved customer satisfaction and business performance. All this serves to build stronger, more resilient, and more successful businesses.

Morris and Lee also believe that gender diversity “will drive more innovation”, emphasising that women bring soft skills like interpersonal communication and empathy to the workplace.

This point of difference also affects design elements. Lee shared an example of how nursing rooms are more commonplace in malls nowadays due to women architects and designers bringing a different angle of thoughtfulness to their projects.

Creating resources for the underrepresented

Despite these challenges, the perception of the construction industry has changed over the years for both countries. Lee pointed out that a possible contributing factor could be the focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) in the last decade.

“A lot of men are actually quite supportive of the movement. They’ve focussed on not stereotyping and encouraging women to take on leadership roles in the field as well,” Lee said.

This also goes back to the availability of resources for women as institutions have a role to play in creating a DEIB-centred environment.

For organisations like Unispace, Morris emphasised that the organisation’s mission is based on improving the experience of women within Unispace.

“As I’m part of the leadership group representing Unispace, we aim to create a more inclusive environment to get everyone involved. We’re also dedicated to empowering women and strive in ensuring that they have equal access to opportunities within our organisation.

“Our main goal is to actually foster global connection,” added Morris, saying that their organisational leadership already puts an emphasis on DEIB and sustainability which has helped them shape a culture that is inclusive.

In the same fashion, WIBM was founded in 2015 to create a platform where women could thrive in industries where they are under-represented. Its goals also include:

> Creating a network between women involved in the Malaysian construction industry such as developers, architects, engineers, quantity surveyors, lawyers, contractors and suppliers;

> Strengthening and promoting the capabilities of women in the Malaysian construction industry though seminars, workshops and conferences;

> Addressing the constraints commonly faced by women in construction in the corporate and business world;

> Establishing liaison and cooperation with government departments and local agencies concerned with or interested in the development of women involved in the Malaysian construction industry;

> And promoting mentor and mentee relationships to undergraduates, young, and less experienced women in the construction industry.

Through initiatives like mentorship programmes and advocacy efforts, WIBM works to promote gender diversity by challenging stereotypes and fostering inclusivity.

“Overall, WIBM’s advocacy and support are essential for creating a future where every woman in construction and design can succeed. Therefore, we welcome more women to join as members,” Nafisah emphasised.

“We collaborate with other women-focussed non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to achieve a targeted 30 percent of women to be at board levels. Another of WIBM’s initiatives is to get the buy-in from the Ministry of Works to include a woman on the board at Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB),” she added.

As Malaysians, we have the opportunity to bridge the gender gap in the construction industry through collaborative efforts between NGOs and the government sector.

Our focus could be on further expanding educational opportunities and providing scholarships, training programmes, and mentorship initiatives to encourage more women to pursue careers in construction. By addressing biases and stereotypes through awareness campaigns and by promoting DEIB, we will be able create a culture that values women’s skills and contributions.

Additionally, implementing policies for gender equality, such as quotas and equal pay, and fostering strong networks and support systems for women-owned businesses, will further empower women in the industry.

Through such steps, we can diversify and widen the range of expertise so that the industry isn’t perceived as an exclusive boys’ club.

This article is published by StarESG, a Star Media Group initiative to accelerate the ESG movement in Malaysia.

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