A group of grizzled steelworkers eating their lunch on an I-beam high above the New York City skyline. Dirty, sweat-stained men swinging sledge hammers on a demolition job. A bunch of guys in hardhats watching another operate an excavator. Construction has always evoked images of men at work, and with good reason — it has traditionally been a male-dominated industry.
But why is this? Women only make up 9.1% of the construction workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the lowest percentage of any major industry. And most of these are office jobs. The number of trade positions held by women is only 1.2%.
There’s no easy answer for why more women aren’t looking for work in construction. For many, it starts with the perception that construction is “men’s work,” that these often physically strenuous jobs are just for boys. And this is only natural — from an early age, little boys are handed toy dump trucks and shovels, while their sisters receive dolls and kitchen sets. And while this type of gender stereotyping is gradually fading away, it’s a long way from gone.
According to a report by the National Women’s Law Center, this issue affects all levels of the education and employment chain, with young women being subtly or explicitly steered away from traditionally male jobs like construction. For many skilled jobs, apprenticeships are the best way to start a career, yet information about these learning positions are often not shared with girls who may be interested in them. Instead, these openings go to the so-called “FBI” network of friends, brothers and in-laws, and as a result remain predominantly male.
But it doesn’t stop there. Even if women are ultimately hired, many of them find it difficult to keep their jobs in what can be a hostile environment. Women in the industry often find themselves negatively stereotyped as “ditzy” or “bossy,” depending on their level of competency and assertiveness. Even worse, a US Department of Labor study found that 88% of women construction workers faced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace.
It’s no secret that there’s an ongoing labor shortage in the construction industry. And many companies would love to fill their vacancies with qualified women — if only they could find them.
With this in mind, Wisconsin-based Miron Construction has taken it upon itself to change the perception of construction as a boys' club with its annual Build Like a Girl outreach event. Encouraging middle- and high-school girls to explore potential careers in construction, it provides real, hands-on experience at jobsites.
Along these lines, companies seeking more women workers are starting to make subtle changes to how jobs and apprenticeships are posted. For example, using images of a diverse crew (including women) sends a nonverbal message that women are wanted, as does shifting to gender-neutral language like “tradesperson” from “tradesman.” It might seem like a small change, but small changes can make a big difference.
If you’re looking to hire more women, consider taking advantage of the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) Program. This federal program is designed specifically to train women to work in traditionally male industries and awards grants from the Department of Labor to help recruit and train women.
The key is to start an actual conversation. If your company goes to recruiting events or job fairs, it’s important to ensure the female attendees see construction as a viable employment option for them. It could be as simple as bringing along one of your own women employees to show them that, yes, women do work in construction, and yes, it is a great career for them.
But it doesn’t stop there. Attracting more women to the industry is a good first step, but it’s equally important to retain them. Review your harassment policies and practices to make sure that when women join your team, they feel comfortable. Make sure your employees know that harassment in any form is not something you will tolerate.
Construction’s reputation for poor work-life balance is also partially to blame for the lack of women exploring careers in the field. Examine your company’s policies on flexible work hours and benefits, especially FMLA, to find opportunities to improve work-life balance.
Despite the fact that construction is lagging behind other industries, change is happening, slowly but surely. No longer is it just a boys’ club, more and more women are taking on jobs in this once male-dominated field. The number of women in construction grew by 81.3% from 1985 to 2007, before taking a hit (along with the rest of the industry) during the Great Recession. But now that number is on the rise again.
That’s good news. Not only does it mean a larger base of skilled workers, it means more women to lead the way for the next generation. Each skilled woman who seeks and excels at her job helps break down job stereotypes further. And that’s good for the entire industry.
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