Builder’s female-focused mentorship paves the way for more women in construction

Paul Eyers
By Paul Eyers
6 Min Read

There’s no denying women in the construction industry have it tough.

But few have had it tougher than Joanne Farrell.

When she finished high school in 1996, there weren’t any government initiatives or not-for-profit programs to help young girls dreaming of a trade career achieve their goals.

At the time, industry misconsensus still revolved around four words: “It’s a man’s job.”

In fact, the burgeoning builder was rejected by nearly every construction company in the Greater Wooloongong area before one gave her a shot, on one condition.

– She worked for free.

But in 1996, that was the sad reality for female tradies looking to get a foot in the door, constantly getting knocked back with words like “We don’t employ girls”, “You’re not strong enough”, and “Girls are a distraction”.

Aside from completing three months of free labour, Jo battled through the following decades dealing with sexist comments and harassing behaviour, paving her way to the top of her trade – where she still works today.

Since then, many things have changed. Government policy and education equality programs have boosted the number of young girls considering trade careers.

But after more than two decades in the industry, women were still approaching Jo with Groundhog Day stories similar to what she experienced.

“Having worked in the industry for so long, I was shocked to have so many women still approaching me with similar stories of rejection and closed doors, unable to get an opportunity,” she told Build-it.

“Women were repeating the exact same words they were saying to me back in 1996.”

Hearing how women were still experiencing the exact same issues decades later was a massive frustration for Jo.

Jo was left so frustrated by hearing the same problems on repeat she decided to tool up to do a demolition job on stereotypes and stigmas regarding women in tradie roles.

“I sat at my dining room table in early 2020 and thought, how do I do something about it and confront this issue head-on,” she told Build-it.

“I knew I actually had to combat this and call it out for what it is instead of complaining about an issue and not doing much about it… that’s when the idea for Build Like a Girl was born.”

Run by women, for women – Build Like a Girl is supported by industry leaders, associations and organisations, all advocating and implementing real change regarding the representation and treatment of women within the construction industry.

The not-for-profit organisation develops collaborative pre-apprenticeship and entry-level programs to develop training, education, mentoring and long-term employment opportunities for a diverse range of women.

Build Like a Girl programs assist women from many backgrounds:

  • School leavers
  • Mature aged women
  • Women from low socio-economic backgrounds
  • Women from diverse, multicultural backgrounds
  • Women with a disability
  • Women of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage
  • Returned services veterans

By bringing the rest of the industry on board for the ride, Build Like a Girl can identify women needing employment, develop trade skills and support women through pre-apprenticeship and industry resilience training.

It then pairs women to jobs with employer partners, enabling them to enter employment in a more equality-conscious environment.

“It’s about amplifying the voices of women out there doing this and shining the spotlight on women in the industry, showing what they are capable of and what they can do,” she told Build-it.

“Having more women and more diversity is actually going to be a positive as we have a huge skills shortage at the moment. Employers can’t find people, but we still have all these biases.”

Women make up approximately two per cent of Australia’s construction-based tradies, with many past organisations attempting various programs and initiatives to counteract the low participation rates and change preconceptions within the industry. However, many failed to have a significant impact.

Jo said she drew from decades of industry experience to identify why previous female participation campaigns had failed.

“In the past, these programs have not included or accepted the contribution of men within the industry as part of the solution,” she said.

“The burden of higher recruitment and retention has been placed on women rather than the industry. Build Like A Girl is changing that.”

Jo now works as the general manager of Kane Constructions in the ACT, where her push for a better gender balance has seen the company go from 6 per cent female staff when she founded Build Like a Girl to a 48 per cent team at the start of 2023.

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Paul Eyers has worked as a journalist for a range of media publishers including News Corp and Network Ten. He has also worked outside of Australia, including time spent with ABS-CBN in the Philippines. Stepping away from the media, Paul spent five years sharpening his tools in construction - building his skill set and expertise within the trade industry. His diverse experiences and unique journey have equipped him with an insider view of Australia’s construction game to dig deep into the big stories.