Set the bar higher to attract more women to the Australian construction sector

Helen Fraser General Manager – People, Laing O’Rourke
6 min read

Over the past few years, there has been a great deal of commentary about how to increase women’s participation in the construction sector.

As a global engineering and construction company, we applaud all initiatives, big and small. However, at Laing O’Rourke we feel the answer lies in setting the bar higher, focussing on initiatives which create sustainable change, and holding our executive committee and teams to account.

The Laing O’Rourke ‘bar’ is a significantly high benchmark – our gender balance targets are set to 50/50 by 2033; we have an industry leading equal parenting policy; and our Inspiring STEM+ schools program targets students before they have made decisions about their future career path. It’s an approach which has seen us receive the Workplace Gender Equality Agency Employer of Choice for Gender Equality in 2020 and 2022, and seen the numbers shift in a sustainable way.

The 50/50 Benchmark

Laing O’Rourke began the process of change four years ago, with the introduction of a Gender Diversity Action Plan, an initiative focussing on increasing the pipeline of women in project leadership roles.

It’s no secret that people thrive in flexible workplaces – or that the pipeline of work in Australia requires a larger, more innovative and productive workforce; so we have committed to a 50/50 gender balance amongst our global staff by 2033.

Recent analysis by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre using data provided by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency showed Australia’s pay gap would fall by a third if employers ensured 40% of their staff were women. A 50/50 target will mean we are playing our part.

In Australia, Laing O’Rourke has increased overall female participation over the past four years from 26% to 35% (Sept 2022), almost doubled the number of women in senior leadership roles on projects from 11% to 19% (Sept 2022) and increased our Australian Executive Committee female composition to 45%.

We have focused on appointing women into senior roles which are vital, valued and well remunerated within the business, which for us means operational roles responsible for the safe delivery of projects. A more balanced gender representation at the senior levels doesn’t just work to shift culture, it is also critical to reducing the gender pay gap.

For this to be a successful strategy, it’s not just recruitment which is important. Our Gender Diversity Action Plan also focuses on retention and promotion, which requires shifting the dial on leadership, culture, and capability. Setting ambitious targets, sponsorship of emerging female leaders, and instilling a culture of flex on our project sites is all part of the plan which has yielded positive results.

Equal Parenting Policy

A recent example of sustainable change is from earlier this year, with the implementation of an industry-first approach to equal parenting which allows Laing O’Rourke to shape an organisation that attracts, supports, and retains the most talented people, women, men, and non-binary people.

Any employee in Australia, regardless of gender, who takes on the primary carer role for their babies has access to six months’ parental leave on full pay. This leave is also available for parents who adopt or welcome a baby via surrogacy and may start any time within 15 months after the date of birth of the child.

The policy – any gender, any birth, any child – is matched by additional industry-leading benefits in both markets.

This policy is making a difference. In Australia we’ve had a 50% increase in men taking primary carer leave in the past 12 months. This is evidence that our hypothesis is correct. Enabling any parent to take paid parental leave creates real culture change within an organisation.

Also available is a new pregnancy loss policy, providing paid leave for any employee who has suffered, or whose partner or surrogate has suffered, a loss of pregnancy.

This policy is about caring for people, particularly at significant life stages. In 2011 we led the industry in Australia when we launched a parenthood policy which provided our people with 18 weeks full paid leave and eight weeks half pay. This year we raised the bar higher in introducing 26 weeks paid leave for parents.

A culture of diversity and belonging

Becoming more diverse and inclusive is a key ingredient in Laing O’Rourke’s mission to remain a recognised leader in sustainability, innovation, and excellence. It starts by recognising the industry has not always welcomed women.

The methods of work and the traditional hours found in construction – traditionally six days a week, sometimes 24-hour day operations and often in regional or remote Australia – do not favour parents.

We’re attempting to change the way we work, the locations in which we work and the times we work, as well the perceptions of gender roles at work and home. The alteration of the way infrastructure is designed, expectations from clients and supply chain partners, and the way society views gender roles is clearly a massive undertaking. But massive undertakings are what Laing O’Rourke does best, so we’re taking this bull by its horns.

It’s an approach which has been independently reviewed and received the tick of approval. According to Dr Di Johnson, Griffith Business School, “More generous and flexible parental leave policies, such as announced by Laing O’Rourke, are a great step towards more mutually beneficial career and family lives… It is time these types of employers weren’t such an exclusive club because it is a clear drawcard for current and prospective employees.”

Inspiring STEM+

Encouraging more women into the construction and infrastructure sector starts earlier than adulthood. Laing O’Rourke’s Inspiring STEM+ is a school partnership program designed in-house in 2017 to encourage female students to consider careers in the construction industry, via studying engineering, law, commerce, and environmental science, as well as trade apprenticeships.

Each program includes eight learning modules, including site visits over a two-year period.

The program is active in six partner schools around the country and has resulted in high school students progressing to work experience, internships, and the graduate program at Laing O’Rourke. So, it works.

It isn’t easy setting a high bar. It takes courage and investment. And it starts with acknowledging that ‘low bar’ efforts are necessary, but not enough. Having a female toilet on site which isn’t being used as a broom cupboard is a good start. But it’s better if the facilities are clean, accessible, safe, fitted with sanitary bins and lockable because they are designed to be used by half the people on your site.

Set the bar higher – it will create a better industry for all of us.


of overall female participation in Laing O'Rourke, Australia


of women in senior leadership roles on projects