Why sponsorship is key for women working in male-dominated industries

For women working in male-dominated industries like construction and engineering, the path to senior leadership is not always clear cut.

With a lack of visible female role models and senior leadership teams mostly made up of men, it can be difficult for women in the early and mid stages of their careers to find allies at work and articulate their career aspirations. 

And while it might not be immediately obvious, there are often significant negative outcomes when there aren’t enough female leaders in male-dominated sectors. For one, it can make it harder for these industries to attract, recruit and retain female employees. It also prevents the positive cultural change that happens when there is diversity of thought and experience in one workplace.

The construction industry, one of Australia’s largest employers, has one of the lowest levels of female workforce participation of any industry at only 12 per cent, according to a recent Infrastructure Australia Market Capacity Report.

The report notes that taking deliberate and meaningful action to diversify the industry’s workforce “can unlock the potential for a more resilient ecosystem that is capable of delivering Australia’s future infrastructure needs”. 

One highly effective way to lift the female workforce into leadership is through sponsorship — a strategic alliance between a senior leader and an emerging leader that can help reduce existing gender disparities in organisations.

Sponsors invest in the careers of emerging leaders by giving them access to opportunity, supporting their skill development and advocating for them. While informal sponsorship networks tend to favour men, one program specifically targeting female talent is Cultivate.

Emerging leader and civil engineer at GHD, Caroline Holmes, has taken part in the Cultivate program. She said the experience has provided her with a structured opportunity to connect with senior leaders within GHD, particularly female leaders. She said without the program, these connections might not have been possible.

Holmes has found Culitvate’s flagship sponsorship program has been beneficial for her because of the nurturing relationship between the sponsor and the person being sponsored.

“For me, the main differentiator is that my sponsor is an ally who will assist and advocate for me once I have identified my leadership aspirations,” she said.

According to a  2022 Report on Women in Engineering by Engineering Australia, female engineers are less likely than women working in other fields to have female role models, and about 1 in 3 reported feeling that they have to act like “one of the boys” to fit in.

Furthermore, only 55 per cent of female engineers agree they have equal opportunities at work compared to men.

It’s this kind of culture that a program like Cultivate’s is helping to overcome. For Holmes, it’s been a game-changer, helping to “level the playing field for women and provide them with the resources and support they need to succeed in leadership roles”. 

Right now, Holmes is developing a relationship with a sponsor she describes as “an inspiration” and says “together we have undergone a journey of self reflection to identify values and aspirations that would define my leadership style and how I can contribute to our organisation”, adding that the program provides a supportive community for building confidence and shared experiences.

Having joined GHD in 2017 as a Principal Consultant in the Perth Dams and Tailings Team, Holmes is currently a Technical Director in the team.

She has over 20 years’ experience in dam engineering and mine waste management for the mining and resource sectors in Australasia, Africa, and South America. Before that, Holmes graduated from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa in 1994 and worked mainly on projects in Southern Africa before moving to Australia with her family in 2007.

For Holmes, one of the key benefits to being in the Cultivate program has been the relationships she’s developing with successful female role models in senior leadership positions.

While her involvement in the curated sponsorship program is ongoing, she says it “has already supported me by helping me identify and articulate my leadership aspirations and providing an ally to advocate for me.”

Having gained a clearer picture of the leadership structures within her organisation, one of her key take-aways has been “that some leadership positions are not profiled but yet remain valuable to the organisation”.

Overall, she says the program and her relationship with her sponsor has allowed her to gain a deeper understanding of what leadership means, the types of roles available within her organisation and how to navigate her own leadership journey.

Is sponsorship in your 2024?

Click below to register your interest in the Cultivate Sponsorship Program for next year! But get in quick as there is only limited spots available for our 2024 intake.