Building boom, paired with a range of opportunities, is attracting both sexes to the construction industry

Populated with leering blokes, low-slung tool belts hanging from their dirty jeans, the caricature construction site is far from female friendly. But a boom in construction, coupled with changing social mores, has seen a dramatic increase of women in the industry.

Ministry for Women's figures reveal that in three years the percentage of women in construction has increased from 8 to 12 per cent. And it's not just in the hands-off stuff; women are eschewing the office and grabbing hold of the hammer.

Renee Davies is the dean of Engineering and Construction and Infrastructure at Unitec in Auckland. She's excited to see the number of women in her faculty steadily increasing.

"In 2008 there were 6 per cent women in trades areas, now in 2016 growing to 11 per cent - so roughly a doubling in eight years," she explains.

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She says there has been some great industry acknowledgement, with women picking up some top awards for their contribution to construction.

"Annalise Johns, an engineer with Fulton Hogan, won this year's young achiever excellence award in the New Zealand Institute of Building Awards," she says.

"And in 2013 one of our graduates, Kate Ross, won the Auckland Master Builders Apprentice of the Year."

Davies says construction offers a wide range of career opportunities in many different fields and that women can make a real impact on the job.

"Communication and collaboration are key aspects of any construction project," she says.

"Women are often very strong in these areas and they can make a real culture change within organisations."

Davies says the rewards reaped by creating something tangible can be huge.

"I have a background in landscape architecture and the building process has always been extremely rewarding to me. It's so wonderful seeing an idea come to fruition."

Lynne Makepeace agrees. As the construction manager of the Waterview Connection (charged with overseeing the $180 million project) she has a front-row seat to the dramatic reworking of an urban landscape.

"You really do leave a permanent mark on the landscape," she says.

The British expat has worked for Fletcher Building for more than a decade. She trained as an engineer in Britain and says when she started her career in the late 1980s she was in the minority.

"Some of the people I worked with were great, but some wondered what a women was doing on a construction site," she says.

"I had to deal with quite a bit of harassment; it was hard but I had the guts and determination to keep going."

Her job has taken her around the world ("I can see a project I worked on in Egypt on Google Earth") and she moved to New Zealand in 2005, starting at Fletcher Building as an area engineer for the Northern Busway.

Makepeace says she has seen a lot of progress around gender diversity in construction.

"Women used to be a very small minority. But this year we have had three female interns, and we have three female site engineers."

She says women are celebrated in her workforce.

"A lot of the guys prefer to work with women as they consider them to be harder working and more diligent."

Though the hours can be long and taxing, she loves her job.

"You work so closely with people over the course of a project that you become like family," she says.

She says it's also wonderful watching how projects can change lives.

"We've built a playpark as part of the Waterview Connection," she says.

"When it opened you could see the children just itching to get past the red tape."

"There will also be a BMX park, a skatepark, plus basketball and volleyball courts. All this in a place that used to be a bit of a backwater."

For the past 20 years women in the construction industry have been represented by the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC).

Co-founded by architect Gina Jones, the organisation recently began hosting an annual Women in Construction Awards with Hays recruitment company.

Jones has been a New Zealand Institute of Building awards judge for many years and was concerned that more women didn't apply for their annual awards.

"Women are often very reluctant to put themselves forward for awards," she says.

She became aware of a small award run by Hays (launched in 2013) and decided they could partner with the company to take the awards forward.

"We launched this in 2015," she says. "In an ideal world we wouldn't have an award that was just for women, but we've already seen how it encourages women to come forward and tell their stories."

Jason Walker from Hays says the recruiters from Hays started noticing an increased amount of women applying for construction positions around the Christchurch rebuild.

"We recognised that a significant number of women were applying for these construction roles," he says.

With the rebuild in full swing and crying out for talent on the ground, they were mindful that they had an untapped market.

"Women have been very underutilised in this area," he says.

"We decided to set up an award to showcase the great work that women are doing in construction and raise awareness of it as a career."

He says attendance at the awards has more than doubled in the years it's been running, an indication that women are becoming more aware of the industry as a legitimate option.

"The first awards attracted about 100 people, and we predict we'll be getting about 400 for next year's event which will be run in Auckland for the first time," he says.

"There is so much more interest in construction as a career than ever before."

Davies agrees. She says the range of opportunities (from project management to communications, trades to engineering) coupled with our construction boom make the industry ever more appealing to women.

"Construction is traditionally a "boom and bust" industry," she says.

"But the great thing about it is that many of the skills are transferable to other jobs. Construction is challenging and hard work, but ultimately very rewarding."