In the male-dominated construction world, the hard hat on a woman’s head is not always a snug and comfortable fit. But there is an area of the industry where the gender gap has noticeably shrunk in recent years – an area where job prospects continue to flourish for female workers.
“When I started out there was just a couple of us, now I think we make up half the staff,” said Rebecca Longo, a female traffic controller with Melbourne-based First Traffic Management.
“And not just at my work,” Ms Longo reflected. “On every job site I see women.”
Ms Longo believes that the number of female traffic controllers across Australia has surged in recent years due to, in her opinion, women often eliciting less road rage from car drivers.
“As a traffic controller, you get people that are not rapt about being stopped, they are in a rush, it’s a normal response. For me, the best way to defuse a situation is just say ‘I’m really sorry, it won’t be long, this is for your safety.’
“Perhaps it’s calming to be a woman on the road, to smile, to be more patient … we have a lot of males and they do a fantastic job too, but maybe women are more calming and can diffuse a situation.”
Ms Longo moved from the female-dominated nanny industry into construction nine years ago when her father, who owns First Traffic Management, told her he thought she’d be a good fit.
“I went from looking after four kids six days a week to working at a construction site six nights a week,” she said. “And I got paid a lot more …”
The approved hourly rate for a CW1 general labourer is $43.53 an hour. As traffic controllers are generally un-unionised, it is difficult to know exactly how much they are paid – although the hourly rate, dependent on the time of the shift, appears to hover around the $35 to $40 mark.
In Sydney, Brianna Higgins made a similarly dramatic career change four years ago when she dumped her job in the female-dominated beauty industry to try and find work in construction.
“I got my tickets, just to see where it led me, and then I got a job the very next day as a traffic controller. I didn’t think I’d make a career of it, but here I am more than three years later …
She said people take interest when she tells them she is a traffic controller. “There was always something very standard about being a beauty therapist,” Ms Higgins said. “I never really thought a girl could go into construction, so it makes me feel like I am doing something special.”
The 22-year-old, from Brighton-Le-Sands, said she is often confronted by angry men annoyed by traffic delays. “You just have to do everything in your power to make it safe,” she said. “Also, I think male drivers do respond better to women, and that’s been my experience when I have been partnered up with a male.”
Libby Dadic, Demi Lebessis, Shelly Goodwin, Cody Taylor, Kelly Ngu and Teena Simpson are forging a way for women in construction (left to right). Picture: Jason South.
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Dave Noonan, national secretary of CFMEU construction, said while there were no official figures it was clear there “were significant numbers of women” in traffic and that it was an area of the construction industry (of which men make up 88 per cent) where woman have found work.
“It’s an entry point for a lot of women into the industry, I think, when they haven’t had an opportunity to do apprenticeships to get into carpentry and the trades,” Mr Noonan said.
Gerard Mitchell, business manager at Sydney-based Traffic Controllers, said 80 per cent of their 50 controllers were women.
“I think road users are more accepting of women in traffic,” he said.
One traffic manager, who wished to remain unnamed, said clients would often call him and request the “same girls” for their work sites because they believed their presence kept their male-dominated crews better behaved. “They find the other workers at the construction site are more co-operative,” he said.
Road users also showed their better side, he said. “The sexist answer, plain and simple, is road users are more accepting of women in traffic control positions. You’re late for work, this and that, and a female stops you, I think you are a little more than relaxed than if it were a male.”
“I don’t think we get told off as much as we would if we were male,” reflects Longo.
“I don’t think we get told off as much as we would if we were male,” reflects Longo.Credit:Jason South
As a nanny, Ms Longo worked long hours but took pride in knowing she was helping to shape the kind of people the children in her care would one day turn into.
In her construction job, she takes the same kind of pride in her work.
“You start with a pile of dirt in the ground and move to the construction stage finally to the infrastructure,” she said. ”Then to see how it improves peoples lives is very satisfying.