15 July 2022

Berry's gender tender has noble goals but will come at a price

| Ian Bushnell
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Niki Shephard Yvette Berry and Katherine Harris

Minister for Women Yvette Berry (right) with Niki Shephard, industry coordination officer at CFMEU, and National Association of Women in Construction ACT co-chair Katherine Harris on-site at Strathnairn for the announcement. Photo: Lottie Twyford.

Like many acts done with good intentions, the ACT Government’s decision to put gender conditions on the tender for the school in the new suburb of Strathnairn in its joint venture Ginninderry development may have unintended consequences.

It is fraught with potential problems and has implications for the taxpayer.

The government wants to lead the way in boosting the number of women in the construction industry, something their own organisations have been championing for some time to attract young people to apprenticeships and other roles to meet ongoing skills shortages.

So the government has decided that the successful tenderer must have a 100 per cent female management team and that every trade subcontractor employs women.

But with only 2.6 per cent of people working in construction in the Territory being women, that immediately raises questions about where they will come from, what companies will be excluded from tendering and whether it will mean higher costs for taxpayers.

READ MORE Government demands new school builder have women contractors, all-female management

The usual suspects will say this is simply more virtue signalling from a ‘woke’ government obsessed with social engineering.

And some of that criticism will be just thinly veiled sexism.

Others might say it smacks of tokenism, and some women might argue they want success on their own terms.

There is no reason why women should not work in the construction industry, apart from the same reasons that some men don’t choose a career on building sites, having neither the aptitude nor the physical frame to be successful.

There are things that need to change – and are changing – in the industry to make women feel more at home, such as providing appropriate facilities and workwear, but also a more accepting culture.

That includes men accepting what should be normal standards of behaviour in any workplace and those standards being enforced.

But the key problem with the government’s approach is that it subverts public procurement practices, which should be about securing the best quality and value for the taxpayer.

The project is a key piece of public infrastructure that deserves the widest interest possible from industry.

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A sanguine Education Minister believes there will be enough companies around that will be able to fit the bill, despite the low rate of female employment, the skills and labour squeeze and an already at-capacity construction sector.

The government also has a built-in preference for local companies, but it will likely have to accept tenders from other jurisdictions and from big companies that will be able to draw staff from their different sections to create the all-female management team.

No doubt these companies will see value in burnishing their reputations as equal opportunity employers.

It is putting a premium on female participation and that will likely flow through to the eventual cost.

It means some firms that could have made a superior pitch will not tender, reducing competition and inflating the price.

It could also delay the project if it takes more time to find tenderers that can meet the terms.

That’s probably the easy part. Sub-contractors being able to find female tradies will be more challenging.

It is interesting that an industry body such as Master Builders ACT has thrown unquestioning support behind the government.

One would have thought that it would articulate some of the obvious concerns of its members, but the government would have briefed it ahead of the announcement and, as a principle, it supports more women joining the industry.

The government says this move is part of an overall action plan to get more women into the sector.

Such policies are welcome to boost equal opportunity and meet the demand for skills, something many industries pre-pandemic have left to migration to fill.

But using public infrastructure as model projects should not be part of the plan.

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I comment on this with some trepidation. I guess one thing the last six years since 2016 has taught us is that: (a) a large portion of the public dislikes identity politics (or anything that looks like identitarian posturing) and overdone affirmative action; and (b) the risk is (as one person has commented below) these sorts of policies will push people to the right (think Trump, Orban, Modi, Alt Right etc). What I don’t understand is why the Deputy Chief Minister has chosen to go out so far beyond what the Master Builders’ Association aspire to… their target for female workers is a modest 25% and there has been no suggestion from them of a 100% target for management (btw, good luck negotiating State and Territory discrimination legislation with that one!). It would be far better if the tender docs just said that female participation would be favourably considered rather than having mandatory quotas.

The ACT govt has done some great things IMO by getting ahead of the curve on electric vehicles and renewable energy. With this one though they have shot themselves in the foot and this might prove to be an unnecessary front to open and a distraction and undo the good work they are doing elsewhere.

Let’s put aside the blatant sex discrimination for a second and ask the question – why is it imperative that we lift the number of women in the construction industry? No answers that centre on having equal numbers allowed. I want to know what the root justification for ensuring equal numbers of people in any industry from both genders are – why should we force people into jobs they wouldn’t otherwise consider.

And separately, why insist on all female management team instead 50/50 split, or higher proportion of women as hands-on-the-tools tradies?

“… why is it imperative that we lift the number of women in the construction industry?”

I don’t think that is the correct question to ask, domenic. I think the question that needs to be addressed is: are women, who would like to work in the construction industry, being denied the opportunity to do so? If there are – and that can easily be ascertained through encouraging contact with the ACT Human Rights Commission.

If there proves to be such cases, then it needs to be addressed. Otherwise, Berry is trying to solve an issue that simply does not exist.

I’m wondering if anyone knows the legal standing of a company planning to tender for this, advertising for on-site mangers that are female; stating men are not eligible to apply?

So now discrimination is fine as long as it favours a certain half of the population, what a joke. The government wants to stamp out discrimination and then activity discriminates against half the population, what complete hypocrisy! How about we just pick the most suitable people for the job based on merit regardless of gender, now there’s a radical thought!

SigmaOctantis12:30 pm 17 Jul 22

The first sentence is wrong, this was never done with good intentions. It was done to make a point and divide society. It’s also offensive to anyone who has worked to make society fairer for everyone, white men included. It shows what the end game is for this so called equality.

When does social policy become social engineering ?

This sort of nonsense pushes reasonable people to the extreme right.

This is clearly a Minister who has a vision that is totally unrealistic and out of step with the real world. Berry needs to understand that Canberra’s population is about 0.8 points in favour of women, I.e. the gender spilt is almost 50/50. Yet she feels justified in discriminating against half of the population in a tender process.

The only companies that will be able to tender for this work will be those who are large enough to cobble together a manufactured management team of women – irrespective of their suitability to perform the task at hand.

There is a huge difference between affirmative action and justified (in Berry’s world) discrimination.

If this comment is viewed as “thinly veiled sexism” then fine. I’m not prepared to resile from my belief that overt discrimination against any sector of the community is unacceptable.

SigmaOctantis8:46 am 17 Jul 22

I agree. Am more than happy to be labelled a sexist for calling out blatant sexist discrimination. What a pathetic excuse for a city this is.

As usual the territory government has chosen the wrong hill upon which to die. the biggest issue in Canberra education is not female tradies building schools but the significant lack of teachers and support staff. with covid dropping teachers like flies, it is never more urgent that to find teachers from anywhere to fill the ever widening gap.

And BTW did it ever occur to anyone to ask young girls if they actually wanted to become tradies? perhaps minister berry can get on the tools and start heaving steel beams around a worksite in zero degree temperatures.

This will have a negative effect on any construction management females wanting to transition, which will ultimately have to delay that transition until after this project.

might have the opposite effect on men wanting to transition…

I particularly agree with Ian Bushnell’s point that the fact that larger firms, probably from interstate, are more likely to be able to assemble an all-female team is counter-productive over all. You may be a capable but otherwise smaller firm in the region, actively employing roughly 50% of females in relevant roles, but owing to size unable to assemble the required 100% from your present staff. It is in fact damaging to smaller to medium businesses by placing unfair obstacles in their path, while larger firms with numerically more but no greater a proportion of female staff can simply rearrange to tick the box and thus out-compete the smaller firm of otherwise equal employment strategy and merit.

Really not appropriate.

I would be very happy for ACT Government to achieve their, apparent, end goal here but reverse discrimination is not the answer.

Given the issues Education, and one would assume their Minister, have had recently with procurement matters it may be wise for them to follow the procurement legislation to the letter rather than risking another serious breach by trying to drum up votes from specific demographics.

While their are exemptions (ironically) under the discrimination legislation for the ACT, I don’t recall them having anything to do with Government RFT’s and more to do with who can and can’t attend fitness centres in Canberra….

Stephen Saunders8:19 am 15 Jul 22

In the past 30 years, Australia has seen adults-in-trades rise significantly, but women-in-trades remain at very low levels.

Whatever astute policy might be required to really lift female participation in the building trades, this sure is not it.

I don’t know whether I’m a ‘usual suspect’ but the signal this sends to me is that it’s ok to be a member of a multi- generational political dynasty in this town but if you have a Y chromosome you’d better check your privilege.

I agree, but also consider the precedent the ACT Government’s decision to put gender conditions on this one project has for other construction projects and tenders. If this female only condition is to be a applied more broadly it impacts on all sectors and employment. Potentially, even in ACT government run hospitals. Would you want your operation done by a surgeon employed simply because they are a female, or a surgeon best qualified?

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