Women have always worked in construction, even in ancient times. And, when you add a little imagination to accounts about ancient building sites, stories like this emerge.
A gang of women toiled in the August heat, thankful for occasional sips of water from a clay jug. Ten carried lime for mortar while 13 others hacked out foundation trenches from dense, stoney soil. The project: a new cloister for a church in Navarra Spain.
Their thanks for a 12-hour day on this 13th century construction jobsite included bread and wine somewhere out of sight because they were considered one of the lowest of society's classes. These female workers faced an existence of hard labor or slavery simply because they were unmarried or very poor. In those days, poverty was seen as punishment for sinning. The more fortunate women working on construction sites handled tasks like sculpting, painting or weaving tapestries.
While the March observance of National Women's History Month, was born in the late 1800s out of worker revolts against the conditions in factories, women's grievances at that time mirrored what women working on early construction sites faced. Long, physically demanding days with only one-half or one-third the pay of what men were paid doing the same work.
Better Today, But…
Even though women working on today's construction jobsites have it so much better, some things don't seem to ever change. The 13th and 19th century male attitudes about a "woman's place" and "a man's role" in society still spill onto modern jobsites. Still, as male-dominated industries marginalize female participation they run the risk of losing out on valuable perspectives that only women bring to the job.
"Women are often considered better listeners, intuitive and innovative, who create more collaborative cultures at their companies," according to Stanford lecturer and investor Fern Mandelbaum.
"Women seamlessly manage crisis and change and are turnaround experts – sensing and neutralizing any signs of danger well before it invades our path."
Glenn Llopis, workforce development and business strategy expert told Forbes: “A woman's instincts and emotional intelligence can be off the chart. [Women] seamlessly manage crisis and change and are turnaround experts – sensing and neutralizing any signs of danger well before it invades our path."
Certainly, their opinions won't apply to every woman, but they highlight a truth that has plenty of evidence behind it; diversity, including gender diversity, fosters better decisions and better business outcomes.
Firm Initiatives Take Hold
Some construction firms have caught on. CH2M HILL's Constructing Pathways for Women Through Inclusion focused on helping female employees bring their unique talents to business needs. Masco Contractor Services started in 2014 to bring more women on board as one way to maintain its competitiveness in light of the worsening construction labor shortage. Meanwhile, Miron Construction reaches out to the next generation with its Build Like a Girl initiative. Still, the U.S. lags behind other developed countries in tapping into a female workforce.
In Australia, women account for nearly 16 percent of all construction workers, in Japan 15 percent, in Canada almost 12 percent, while in the U.S. they hold barely nine percent of construction jobs. The U.S. construction industry has never done a good job of developing its workforce and that's largely why the industry has had labor shortages on and off for decades. And while the severity this time is different, the reasons are not; market cycles, uncomfortable workplaces, dangerous conditions and an inadequate long term pipeline of skilled candidates.
Training Forms a Vital Connection
For female job candidates though, construction also offers unique negatives like gender unfairness, mistreatment, no voice and low support. While nobody expects women to completely fill out construction's sagging ranks, there is recognition that the industry needs to do more to attract them. Unfortunately, there isn't an industry-wide effort in the U.S. as in other countries, but there are many smaller efforts.
In Australia, women account for nearly 16 percent of all construction workers, in Japan 15 percent, in Canada almost 12 percent, while in the U.S. they hold barely nine percent of construction jobs.
In Tampa, the Women Building Futures program teaches basic construction skills. Mississippi-based Women in Construction recently received a Strengthening Working Families grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. This four-year, $3.5 million grant allows an expanded program that includes support services and resources for women in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties. In Wisconsin, the Women Wear Hard Hats Too program, claims it can't train women fast enough for the industry. In New York City the Nontraditional Employment for Women, has trained and placed over 1,300 women in construction jobs. Organizations like local chapters of the Associated Builders and Contractors, unions and the National Association of Women in Construction offer apprenticeship programs and connections to a wide range of public and private education and training sources.
While women in ancient times worked construction largely because they had to, or were forced to, women who choose the work today do so because they enjoy building.