Where Are the Women in Construction?

By Lisa Minniti-Soska

This article was originally published by Construction Today on August 16, 2017. Click here to view original article.

Recently, while out to dinner with friends, I mentioned that I was involved in an initiative with the goal of enhancing the development and retention of women accounting leaders in our firm. I asked one of my friends, a glazier, how many women he works with. He responded that there were none. I turned to my husband, who also works in the construction industry, and asked him how many women he works with in the field. He, too, responded none.

According to the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Bureau of Labor Statistics, women represent 46.8 percent of the workforce. So where are all the women in construction and how does the lack of women affect the future of the industry? The same DOL statistics show that a mere 9.1 percent of women in the workforce participated in construction in 2016 and the majority of these women worked in administrative roles. While the number of women involved in other industries continues to increase, the same growth is not seen in construction.

Hurdles from Childhood
There are a number of barriers to women interested in entering the field. Starting from an early age, girls learn to perceive construction as a male-only career choice. Young girls typically see their fathers, uncles, brothers or other men participate as construction workers, causing them to assume there is no place from them. However, the increasing number of women in other male-dominated careers, such as firefighters and police officers, tells us that this is not the only obstacle that needs to be addressed.

Those that are interested in entering the industry can often become deterred by the unfortunate shortage of female role models. Even the women who have navigated through previous obstacles often abandon their course because of gender bias and fear of being scorned or discriminated against by colleagues or others in the field.

Particularly in fields requiring physical work, gender bias can create a workplace culture that is dismissive of women’s abilities, making it difficult for them to break into the field. Women who do manage to get hired for construction jobs are often the subject of gender stereotypes, resulting in employers making assumptions about their caregiving responsibilities or physical capabilities.

Unfortunately, gender quotas are falling short of solving the problem. Sometimes women are put to work on a job solely to show a company is meeting gender goals. However, once the project is completed, women are often fired regardless of their performance or skills. Research shows that women in construction are less likely to have access to mentors who act as career promoters by signaling the woman’s potential and providing the support needed to ensure success.

Why Do We Need Women in Construction?
Ignoring the lack of women in construction is shortsighted. The construction industry is experiencing a fundamental shift, as a looming labor shortage is creating fierce competition for workers. Economists are also predicting significant growth in construction spending, causing construction companies to face problems with the lack of available resources. In addition, technology is transforming the way projects are designed and diversity is increasingly becoming an important focus within the industry, in an attempt to bring in new points of view and ways of problem solving by expanding the range of workers’ backgrounds and experiences. As a result of these changing trends and baby boomer retirement, the construction industry needs to rethink its strategies to attract, recruit and retain female workers.

The lack of women in construction can be solved, but not overnight. One of the best ways of attracting more women to the industry is to make girls today aware of the career opportunities in construction, including exposure to female role models. Reinforcing their exposure to the industry throughout high school and enlisting the help of high school career counselors to promote careers in construction will also help. Getting more women into the industry, however, is just the first step. Only long-term work to dismantle gender biases and the development of a professional support system of formal and informal mentors will ensure they stay and flourish.