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.
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.
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.