Posted on Apr 7, 2017

Women have made strides in the construction industry, but despite the inroads, they have a long way to go before reaching parity with their male counterparts, especially when compared to other industries.

According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report published late in 2015, the last available report of its kind, women accounted for 47% of all employed people in the United States. However, the share of women represented in specific occupations varied greatly. For example, 90% of registered nurses, 81% of elementary and middle school teachers, and 63% of accountants were women. In comparison, the federal study showed that women represented only 9.3% of construction workers.

For decades, sexism was prevalent in the industry, with only occasional breakthroughs before the feminist movement really started taking hold in the latter half of the 20th Century. While strides have been made on job sites and in executive suites since then, fighting against age-old habits remains an uphill battle.

Early Conditioning

Women have faced barriers in practically every industry and profession — pioneers often speak of shattering the glass ceiling on compensation and job positions — but the construction industry has been particularly intimidating. As a result, female participation remained on the low side.

As girls grew up, many were conditioned to look for jobs in education and health care. Construction was often characterized as male-only or at least dominated by men.

Other factors deterred the growth of women in the industry. Some women turned to other careers because of sexist attitudes and a desire to be taken more seriously. Others pointed to safety and health concerns. And without a sufficient number of leaders who could serve as mentors, the needle didn’t move far in construction.

Three Areas of Change

Nevertheless, advances have been made as women gain more traction. This is exemplified by significant changes in three areas:

1. Stereotypes. Women are no longer pigeonholed as teachers or nurses. Increasing numbers of people are thinking more broadly, including girls and their parents during the formative years and decision makers at construction firms. It’s no longer your granddaddy’s construction company.

Technology also is having a major influence. As technological advances are made in construction, women who previously might not have joined worked crews on-site now participate from the home office. More industry leaders are visiting (and sometimes recruiting at) high schools, technical schools and colleges to get the message across about available opportunities. And women are being encouraged to take courses that can lead to further advancement in the industry.

2. Harassment. Inappropriate practices simply aren’t tolerated. Managers and supervisors who would have looked the other way in the past are now on high alert. Stricter human resources policies are being developed and observed.

In addition, females on construction crews are speaking up. Previously, they may have been silent about sexual harassment for fear of losing their jobs. However, by shining a light on inappropriate behavior, improvements are being made. Groups such as the National Association of Women in Construction and Chicks with Bricks are lending support.

3. Safety. All construction workers, male and female, face risks on a daily basis. But the work may be more even more hazardous for women because protective gear and equipment generally is designed to accommodate average-sized men. Women may have difficulty finding properly fitting protective equipment.

Increasingly, firms are starting to use equipment and clothing that is designed for women on construction jobs. Similar accommodations are being made for men of smaller stature.

As with sexual harassment, women might not report issues about construction safety for fear of losing their job. However, laws enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offer some protection.

OSHA also provides information, training, and assistance to workers and employers in an attempt to improve safety for women on construction jobs. It offers webinars relating to these issues as well.

Note: When an employee signs a formal complaint, it is more likely to result in an OSHA inspection.

The Road Ahead

The construction industry increasingly is becoming a better option for women, featuring competitive pay, career training and the opportunity for growth. While women still have to fight for equal pay in this country across the board, the gender wage gap is shrinking.

In fact, certain numbers favor women in construction. According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report, full-time female construction workers made about 93.3% of what male workers were paid compared to 79.5% of what male employees were paid overall.

Women are also being given more opportunities to take on higher-paid positions, such as construction managers and construction site inspectors, where they can utilize communication and management skills. Also, more females are taking on an entrepreneurial role, including fields that were previously dominated by males, such as construction.

A Brighter Future?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are slightly more than 150,000 women owning businesses overall in 1997 and that number roughly doubled during the next decade. This bodes well for more female construction firm owners in the future.

It seems that women are gaining ground in the construction industry and we can expect this trend to continue.

One Woman’s Story

Adeleen Shea drew plenty of dirty looks when she walked through malls under construction in her distinctive pink hardhat and conservative business suit.

At the time she was a project coordinator just out of college. Now she is general manager at Commonwealth Building Inc., in Quincy, MA, and has been in the construction business for 36 years.

When she started, seeing a woman on construction sites was a rarity, especially in certain areas like the Midwest, and some crews resented her presence. Shea says that the situation has improved, but it’s still not ideal.

“It’s better than it was,” she notes, “but being a woman in the construction industry remains a challenge.” Significantly, she refers to an undertone where workers believe that a woman is “taking away a job that would have been a man’s job.” The construction workplace is evolving, but the pace is slower than in many other industries.