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By Erica Sweeney
March 6, 2017
Much has changed for women in the construction industry since Connie Leipard co-founded her subcontracting company in the late 1970s. Many more women work in construction today. Women fill different kinds of roles and are paid more equally to their male counterparts. But, most of all, women are more accepted in the industry than they were decades ago.
It’s easy to see that women have come a long way in the industry—but, Leipard says they still have a ways to go. Raising awareness about construction careers for women is part of her mission as president of the National Association of Women in Construction, which is celebrating its Women in Construction Week on March 5-11.
“We’re trying to get the word out that women are a very important part of the industry,” Leipard explains. “Women work in every facet of construction in critically important roles. This year, part of our goal is to increase the visibility of women in the industry. This increased visibility will promote the recruitment of more women and encourage others to start careers in construction. This will ultimately ease the workforce shortage in the industry.”
During Women in Construction Week, which carries the tagline “Support, Encourage, Grow,” NAWIC’s 125 U.S. chapters will celebrate with community service projects, jobsite tours, membership drives, children’s activities, workshops, fundraisers, and school programs. Chapters are also seeking official WIC Week proclamations from local, state, and national governments.
Most of all, Leipard says the weeklong awareness campaign highlights NAWIC’s focus on informing women about the opportunities that that the construction industry offers—specifically, a smaller gender pay gap, steady work, and a sense of pride.
From 1985 to 2007, the number of women working in the construction industry grew 81.3 percent. However, the industry as a whole lost 2.5 million jobs from 2007 to 2010 in the nationwide economic downturn, and many of those affected were women.
Women now make up just under 10 percent of the construction industry, with about 930,000 women employed in the industry at the end of 2015. These numbers have remained relatively steady over the past 10 years.
“Women haven’t really increased participation as much as we should have over the past 40 years, but women are much more accepted as an integral part of the industry,” says Leipard, co-owner of Quality Drywall Construction, a Columbia, Missouri-based subcontracting firm.
However, she says women serve in much more visible roles these days, including engineering and project management.
“We’ve made strides in those areas, as far as the types of jobs that women do,” she explains. “Years ago, women were much more on the administrative side. Now, we’re much more in higher top-level jobs. Generally, we’ve been more accepted in the industry. But, the numbers aren’t where I think we should be.”
NAWIC, which was founded in 1955, is working to change that. The organization offers mentoring programs aimed at junior high and high school age children to introduce them to construction careers. The organization also provides scholarships to men and women, and support and encouragement to individuals in college, trade schools, or apprenticeship programs.
“We mentor young women to come into the industry, and then give them support to grow their career,” Leipard says.
Bringing more women into the construction industry may take a shift in mindset. Construction is still often seen as a nontraditional career path for women. One plus is that women entering the industry will find a smaller gender pay gap compared to other industries.
In the construction industry, women’s earnings are 91.3 percent of men’s, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average across all industries is 83 percent.
Even though women have achieved greater parity in salaries, Leipard says they may see some barriers to a career in construction, including working in unconventional settings that are exposed to the elements and adjusting to male-dominated environments.
However, Leipard says construction offers “exciting” opportunities for women. No two days are ever the same, and a strong sense of pride and satisfaction comes with building homes, schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure. Plus, the industry readily embraces technology, which is appealing to younger generations.
“You’re providing a valuable source to your community,” Leipard says. “You’re able to see the fruits of your labor. Whether you’re involved in the administrative side or actually on the jobsite, you’re able to see your contribution to society.”
Leipard says many women (and men) enter the industry because of a family connection. She herself fits into this category. Her family had a background in agriculture and construction, and her father-in-law worked in the drywall industry––the sector where she and her husband founded their company. And, her daughter is a civil engineer specializing in hydrology.
“One of the challenges as an industry is we have not done a good job of recruiting people that don’t have some type of connection to the industry,” she explains.
As the construction industry as a whole has experienced workforce shortages, Leipard sees women as the solution. There are many opportunities out there, but recruitment is key.
“Most companies are really wanting qualified workers who are engaged and productive,” she explains. “There are opportunities for women to take advantage of. It’s a message that a lot of women don’t think about. We have to help women wrap their minds around working in a nontraditional field, and train them to excel in those careers.”
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