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What Does Future Hold for Women in Construction?

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There’s been a lot of talk recently about women’s participation in the construction industry to help with the lingering labor shortage. Like most things these days though, it’s complicated.

One question the industry can’t avoid asking is whether it wants to be an employer of choice, or an employer of last resort.  While construction’s reputation as dull, dangerous and dirty could make it a less attractive industry to women, there are plenty of construction roles where those conditions rarely exist. So, what is it then? There is evidence that societal norms and job cultures play a bigger role than people want to admit.

The Numbers Tell a Story

You can’t talk about women in construction without talking about women in the workforce as a whole. The U.S. workforce participation rate (the number of employed, and unemployed looking for a job, as a percentage of the population aged 16 years and over) is hovering around 63 percent. That’s lower than Canada (66%), Italy (66%), Australia (66%), Singapore (68%), France (72%) and the United Kingdom (79%).

There are more women in the workforce because there are more women of working age. But, women’s participation in the workforce has slipped 2.5 percent since 2000.

According to most recent accounts about nine percent of the construction workforce are women, and their share of total employment is 47%. While women make up large shares of employees in industries like nursing (90%), teaching (79%) and accounting (61%), their participation in construction is even lower than in mining (13%), agriculture (25%), manufacturing (29%) and transportation (24%).

While women make up large shares of employees in industries like nursing (90%), teaching (79%) and accounting (61%), their participation in construction is even lower than in mining (13%) and agriculture (25%).

The Social System Impact

Logic says that if you want to include more women in the construction workforce you need women who want to join this particular industry. But, through gender training which starts very early in life, girls are guided to careers like nursing and teaching while boys are channeled to most anything they’re interested in, unless of course, it has a feminine aura to it.

“I had a female teacher in the fifth grade tell me women can only be teachers, nurses, or stay at home moms,” said Raven Hoffman, senior estimator at Syverson Tile and Stone and a National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) member.

Kristin Mmari, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the lead qualitative researcher on the Global Early Adolescent Study, told USA Today that viewing gender as a system is more representative of the real world. That’s because the preconceived notions people have about the work a person should do is usually based on gender.

A boy who’s interested in teaching might feel social pressure to prepare for a job in the trades. Meanwhile, a girl interested in the trades is encouraged toward the arts. Both of them may believe they’re in the right jobs because of social expectations, but they end up struggling for years in work that doesn’t inspire them. That hurts both of them, and their employers.

Do Sensitivities Exaggerate Differences?

Many have the preconceived notion that women “can’t” do the work, or aren’t strong enough. Hoffman said  that much harassment goes unreported out of fear, but also to avoid appearing weak.

“I also think because of the sensitivity around women in a male-dominated field some attempts at joking unintentionally come across as harassment,” Hoffman said. “Also, some attempts at joking are taken entirely too seriously, blowing an attempt at inclusion out of proportion.”

Protecting the Status Quo

Ingrained company attitudes, the ones that make gender equality and inclusion a checkbox to tick off, or an opportunity to get some good press when the company does something to welcome women, add to the problems, according to a recent study.

According to McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org’s Women in the Workplace 2018 report, women are two times more likely to be seen as someone junior, two times more likely to be demeaned and two times more likely to be sexually harassed.

Less than half of companies McKinsey surveyed have goals for gender diversity, and 58 percent of companies don’t hold senior leaders accountable for gender parity. Without leadership support, not much happens. Women are less likely to be hired into a management job and less likely to be promoted. The numbers tell the story. For every 100 men promoted there are 79 women promoted. And, if a candidate is a minority woman, only 60 get promoted.

“Women in construction have come a long way – it is not unusual to find some women in the trades on jobsites all across the country,” said Brenda K. Radmacher, partner at law firm Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani LLP. “There are also more women in project engineer roles. However, we still see relatively few women in management and owners’ roles of construction firms. The same goes for the design professionals. Many companies do have one or two women at these higher levels, but there still appears to be a ‘one seat at the table’ idea that is pervasive.”

Radmacher is the construction group lead in the firm’s Los Angeles office, representing contractors, design professionals, real estate developers and owners.

What Does the Future Hold?

There are two perceptions of how the future looks for a more diverse and inclusive construction workforce. One is that the current state of women in construction will remain the same.

“In terms of real numbers, I am not positive,” said Hoffman. “I know people who have worked with training programs to bring women into the trades, but I do not know their actual numbers. Any increase in knowledgeable, hard working labor would be highly impactful – people looking for employment who actually want to work, to learn a trade, and take pride in a job well done are few and far between.”

Radmacher said she sees things changing as more women get into construction, and she offered a hopeful but cautious assessment.

“I have been asked to conduct training on negotiation skills for several construction companies for their women in particular, as many firms see the business case for diversity at all levels and understand that they need to be supportive of women and other minorities,” she said. “Once these women have a few more years under their belts, I think they will be putting the industry to the test to see if women can really be on a level playing field in this traditionally male-dominated industry.”

There’s a lot of lip service paid in construction circles to include more women in the workforce. But, in the end, it’s societal and industry beliefs and attitudes that weigh heavily on attracting more of them.

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