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Women in Construction: The Opportunities and Challenges


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According to Census Bureau statistics from the American Community Survey, women have typically made up about 10% of the construction workforce going back at least as far back as the year 2000. Women from the millennial generation are being looked to as the key for the future of the construction industry. As baby boomers continue to retire in large numbers, the industry is staring at labor and management shortages.

Proponents of advancing women in business point out that it’s not that a woman’s perspective is more valuable, it’s just that it’s different.

PricewaterhouseCoopers is aggressively studying women in the workforce with an emphasis on the millennial generation. Female millennials are entering the workforce in greater numbers than ever before and they are highly educated. The study showed that more than half of these women believe they can rise to senior leadership and management positions. A McKinsey study also found that 32% of women in entry-level positions and 51% of those in middle management, either agree or strongly agree that they want to be in executive management roles.

Millennial women are looking for employers who offer career progression, and more than 80% say they also look at an employer’s record on diversity when making job decisions. Millennial women value keeping their work and personal lives in balance, and expect regular feedback on their job performance. And nearly 70% of the women surveyed by PcC global say they want international work experience.

National & Corporate Views

Taking the national economic view are those who equate more women in the workforce with a rise in the gross domestic product, or GDP. McKinsey reported that 65% of GDP growth came from workforce expansion during the 1970s, of which women made up a large part. Today, productivity is the major contributor to growth, and increasing the numbers of college educated women in the workforce can improve productivity.

At the corporate level, there is mounting evidence that when women are in top leadership positions, companies do better. Catalyst reported that return on invested capital was 26% greater in companies that had women on their boards, when compared with companies that had no women. When asked what attributes are the most important for leadership success today, surveyed corporate leaders named intellectual stimulation, inspiration, participatory decision making, setting expectations, and rewards. Women leaders tended to exhibit these traits.

Other evidence comes from analysis of highly functioning organizations. The McKinsey Organizational Health Index looks at nine factors which are key to organizations that function well. When companies had three or more women in top positions, they scored higher on the index than others. Proponents of advancing women in business point out that it’s not that a woman’s perspective is more valuable, it’s just that it’s different. When companies have both complementary and alternative views to consider, they make better decisions. Encouraging different perspectives also cuts through group-think, opens fresh insights, and makes organizations more innovative and creative.

Construction Connection

Companies such as Masco Contractor Services reported they were trying to attract more women to help with problems arising from the growing labor shortage in the construction sector. To do that, they started designing their ads to appeal to women. They also began highlighting their benefits and competitive salaries, and they made selling points of their safety culture, training, and culture of diversity. One recent applicant said her introduction to the company, and its hiring process was easy and quick. She started installing batt insulation and reported being pleased with the pay and the work. A division manager said the women he has hired have excelled with components that are highly visible to the customer and require a lot of skill to install. He also credited their attention to detail, eye for quality, and customer-friendly attitudes.

For women to make inroads in construction, however, many companies have to make changes. Just like in other industries, at the corporate level, McKinsey reports there are structural obstacles. For example, women have fewer networking opportunities, role models, and sponsors at higher levels of organizations. There is also evidence that women are treated differently when it comes to promotions. They are often evaluated on their performance, while men get evaluated on potential. Oftentimes management will defend their actions by claiming they are preventing women from failing––a logic which limits advancement. The caution is that not everyone is having the same experiences, and there are women in construction who think the industry is equal for men and women.

Elaine McKenna with EC Harris, says she doesn’t think there is a ‘glass ceiling’ for women in the industry and that women have the same opportunities as men.

She told ConstructionWeekOnline, “Definitely within the last 20 years, barriers have fallen and the industry has become more accessible to all walks of life. The construction industry is no longer about just bricks and mortar, it’s transformed as a business, promoting life-long careers.”

But there is also an aspect about women in construction that seldom gets any play, and that’s the idea that women, just like men, can find fulfilling careers building things. Herlema Owens who jumped from the beauty industry to construction 27 years ago, says she’s never looked back, and that while finding construction was almost accidental, it was life changing for her.

“My first day on the job was the most enlightening and breathtaking experience I ever had. It was the dream of my life that I never even knew I had dreamt,” she told a staff writer with the Queens Tribune. “It was exciting and on that first day I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

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