Construction is traditionally known as one of the most male-dominated industries in the world. However, in the last 13 years, the presence of women in construction in the United States rose by almost 53 percent to 10.4 percent of the overall industry. While most women work in sales and management roles, the presence of women working in the trades grew by 15.7 percent in 2022. We find 316,000 women, 24.6 percent of the female workforce, in natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations. 1 Women working in trades are at the highest in decades, breaking down gender barriers and bringing a new perspective to the construction industry.
Contrary to today's beliefs, women have contributed significantly to the construction industry. For example, in the late 1800s, Emily Roebling was recognized as one of the first women field engineers and played an essential role in the construction and completion of the Brooklyn Bridge; Ms. Roebling was the first to cross it. Another example is Ethel Charles, who, in 1898, was the first woman architect to gain full professional recognition and be admitted to the Royal Institute of British Architects.
In the 1930s, many Americans still held an old-fashioned belief that women were incapable of working in industrial jobs and performing heavy labor. By 1943, thousands of women worked in industrial yards across the country, doing work traditionally held by men. Women operated cranes, worked as riveters and welders, and played a pivotal role in many other industrious jobs. These women are role models, paving the way for today's women in the trades.
Nowadays, the misconception that construction is a "man's world" is being challenged by many construction companies across the globe by women who are determined to break the outdated "bro code." Those companies have created company-wide women-in-construction committees and initiatives. Jordan Foster Construction (JFC) strives to challenge outdated stereotypes and the concept that women don't belong in construction and have also established companywide women-in-construction committees and work to provide year-round initiatives to support women in construction. By embracing diversity for everyone, these organizations create healthier work environments for everyone.
October 2022 marked 5 years since the #MeToo movement went viral on Twitter when actress Alyssa Milano urged victims of sexual abuse to share their stories on Twitter in the wake of the accusations of misconduct against Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein. Within a month, the #MeToo hashtag was used over 19 million times, spanning multiple languages, and sparking stories and interest from around the globe. 2
Due to the historically male-dominated "bro code" reputation, it was not surprising when the construction industry joined the plethora of industries reporting a litany of gender bias and harassment issues, with 66 percent of women reporting experiencing sexual harassment in 2018. 3
Yet, the goal is to continue to spark a positive conversation around how men and women can work together to build bridges in traditionally male-dominated industries and pave the way for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
So many events have happened over the last few years, from a global pandemic to an impending recession. The understanding of the challenges facing women and minorities has grown. Here are some observations regarding DEI, safety, and the workforce 5 years after #MeToo.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, many construction companies began implementing initiatives to increase workplace diversity and inclusion. DEI policies are now expected and set the expectation of equitable treatment of everyone. Many construction organizations have written policies and procedures regarding DEI. The Associated General Contractors has included DEI efforts in their Culture Care Initiative that encourage contractors to take the challenge and provide a more equitable, respectful, and inclusive environment where every person—from the CEO to the laborer—has the opportunity to feel valued, respected, and heard.
Women have progressed in the construction industry, but some challenges that reared their ugly heads during #MeToo remain. On some projects in the United States, incidents of harassment continue. One female field electrician confided, "Reporting harassing behavior to Human Resources (HR) creates a Catch-22 situation. HR will say all the right things, but ultimately, I end up with a target on my back. I still must face and work with the whole crew every day. I essentially become the butt of the joke. It is best for everyone if I shrug it off and stay quiet."
Men who want to step in and stand up for a female colleague report it is a double-edged sword. One man explained his own experience, "Sometimes the female colleague is angered by the defense, declaring they don't need protection. They want to be treated like everyone else. Other times, men report being ostracized because they 'ruin the fun' if they point out bullying behavior and try to stop it."
Until the expectation of DEI initiatives become part of the culture of the organization and the industry, these types of reports will continue. DEI initiatives are like how safety programs were launched 30 years ago when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) arrived. Many companies wrote out their procedures, but operationally, it was "business as usual" regarding unsafe work practices putting those closest to work at risk of injury. 4
In the last 5–7 years, the safety industry has finally realized that compliance procedures are not enough. To provide a safe workplace, organizations must integrate a safety culture into the fabric of their business model. Safety has made great strides thanks to Human Organizational Performance and Total Worker Health initiatives. The construction industry must work diligently to ensure the time frame for authentic DEI culture is much shorter than the 30-year journey to safety culture as the expectation and the norm.
There is good news on the personal protective front. Now, several companies are creating personal protective equipment (PPE) specifically for women. Companies like Xena Work Wear provide beautiful, functional work boots designed specifically for women, building confidence and professionalism with each pair. At last, these products are available on a broader scale. The typical "shrink it and pink it" tax, where items marketed for women are more expensive, should not become a deterrent to construction organizations providing PPE for women. The goal is to ensure these products are mainstream, easily accessible, and affordable.
For a good reference on more information about PPE for women, Abby Ferri has written extensively on these products.
The construction industry continues to be at risk of collapse as we struggle to find people to do the work. Construction will need to attract an estimated 546,000 additional workers on top of the average pace of hiring in 2023 to meet the demand for labor, according to a proprietary model developed by Associated Builders and Contractors. In 2024, the industry will need to bring in more than 342,000 new workers on top of normal hiring to meet industry demand, which presumes that construction spending growth will slow significantly next year. 5
Many experts agree that attracting women to the construction industry may be a way to solve the workforce shortage problem. However, there is a hidden risk that very few acknowledge. Men aged 25–54 are opting out of the labor market. In his book, Men without Work, Nicholas Eberstadt produces astonishing statistics on men choosing not to work. More than 11 percent of men (7 million) are neither working nor looking for a job. Barely half of the native-born prime-age men with no high school degree are in the job market. The number has increased by a percentage point every 7 years since 1965, despite the state of the economy or the number of job vacancies.
Millennials perceive work as a means to achieve self-fulfillment; they need to be more focused on the income stream. Studies show that male labor market dropouts spend most of their newfound time leisurely socializing or relaxing in front of a screen, watching the TV, or playing video games. Unfortunately, more free time for men has not resulted in more equity regarding caregiving responsibilities for children or aging parents. 6
Women bear a disproportionate burden from family caregiving responsibilities, not only during their reproductive years but also across life. Vast swaths of the workforce lack paid leave and other important protections that support labor force engagement, leading many women to either reduce their work hours or drop out of the labor force entirely.
A massive gender gap exists in the share of women and men who are either not working or working part-time because of childcare or family reasons. Regardless of age or parental status, women were five to eight times more likely to experience a caregiving impact on their employment in 2022. 7
One day, hopefully within our lifetime, the word "nontraditional' will no longer apply to workplaces and gender. The construction industry is booming, and with the dawn of the multibillion-dollar infrastructure bill, women who gravitate toward the construction industry can be selective in where they decide to work.
Attracting and retaining top talent will require construction organizations to embrace technology, DEI, and safety and ultimately create authentic workplaces where people can make a difference while earning a living. Construction companies that recognize and embrace a culture of care on their projects will be the employer of choice for the best and the brightest in the industry. Women will be an integral part of breaking the "bro code" and creating the future of construction.
Thanks to Taylor Mathews for her assistance in authoring this article. As a risk analyst at Jordan Foster Construction, Ms. Mathews is a detailed-driven construction risk analyst proficient at analyzing organizational risk data and trends, as well as developing efficient claims processes. She works in the Dallas Metroplex Office of Jordan Foster Construction, LLC, and can be reached at [email protected].
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