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Women in Construction: Will It Ever Be Equal?

Words by 3p Contributor
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By Megan Wild

Women have made huge strides in the workplace over the past decade. They are increasingly making their presence known and are fighting for better positions, equal pay and fair treatment. While several industries are gaining more women, getting women into construction companies has proved to be more difficult.

According to a survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), women make up 46.8 percent of total employment across all industries, but they only account for 9.3 percent of construction employees. Data gathered from the BLS survey shows that construction is the only industry in which female employees account for less than 10 percent of the workforce.

Plenty of factors exist that create barriers to women entering the field, keeping the percentage of females in construction lower than other industries. Girls grow up seeing the field as a male-only career. Women who are interested in construction become deterred by sexism and the fear of not being taken seriously. Others are concerned by safety and health hazards specific to women in construction.

Without many female role models in the field to look up to, women feel there isn’t a place for them in construction — but industry leaders are looking to change that.

The stereotype of a male-dominated industry

Young girls are encouraged to pursue careers in fields such as healthcare or education. Rarely are the words “electrician” or “technician” even brought up as possible career paths for girls. Additionally, because they only see men doing the job, girls assume there is no place for them in the field.

Technology and innovation are providing more appealing ways for women to get involved, however, and more scientists, technologists and engineers are needed every year. Industry leaders are taking steps to change the perception among young people as well.

By visiting schools and encouraging students to consider careers in construction, leaders aim to inspire girls and boys to take higher-level math and science classes to improve their skills. Companies are also encouraging girls to keep their options open and know that they are welcome and needed in the field.     

Sexism and harassment

When women do fight against the stereotype and enter the construction field, they then face the problem of sexism and not being taken seriously by their male co-workers. With research showing that more than half of female construction workers report having been treated poorly because of their gender, it’s no wonder that women don’t naturally gravitate toward the idea of working in construction.

Most female construction workers let the cat calls and sexist remarks roll off their backs, keeping quiet about them because they’re afraid to say anything to their supervisors. However, when women allow this to happen, nothing changes. Unless women voice these issues, company leaders don’t see a problem and don’t do anything to correct the behaviors. The stereotype then continues, and the percentage of women in the industry remains under 10 percent.

For this reason — among others — mentors, role models and networking groups serve a great purpose to women in construction. While the number of female role models in the industry is not abundant, networks such as Chicks with Bricks and the National Association of Women in Construction exist to support women in all aspects of being involved in a male-dominant workplace.

Safety and health concerns

Construction workers, whether male or female, are subject to dangerous situations on a daily basis, but female construction workers face even more safety and health concerns. Because it is a largely male industry, protective gear and equipment are made to fit an average-sized man. The UCATT Women in Construction survey found that 15 percent of female construction workers had a hard time finding properly-fitting protective equipment.

As is the case with harassment, women often neglect to report these issues for fear of losing their jobs or stirring up unwanted negative attention.

Employers, however, are required to provide a safe workplace for all employees. OSHA conducts inspections on work sites when workers file complaints. Again, women need to speak up in order for change to happen.

What’s in it for women in construction roles?

With competitive pay, career training and more, construction companies are increasingly offering better benefits to women than stereotypical female positions.

While women still fight to earn equal pay as compared to their male co-workers across the board, the gender wage gap for many construction occupations is actually smaller than other industries. According to the United States Census Bureau’s report on annual median earnings by sex, full-time female employees made about 79.5 percent of what male employees made in 2014. In the same year, female construction workers made about 93.3 percent of what male workers made.

Roles in construction earn higher hourly wages than that of more stereotypical female jobs, too. In 2013, the median hourly wage for construction occupations was $19.55 — nearly double that of jobs such as home health aides and child care workers.

Women might not be eager to jump into carpentry or plumbing roles, but construction offers plenty of opportunities to progress. Higher-paid positions, such as construction managers and construction site inspectors, allow women to utilize communications and management skills. Also, more and more women are getting involved with the entrepreneurial side of the industry. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 152,871 women-owned construction firms were confirmed in 1997, and 10 years later, that number climbed to 268,809.

With the demand for more diversity among construction employees comes the rise of apprenticeships being offered to women. Companies and organizations are eager to get more women on board and offer training programs to teach the necessary job skills. Some organizations, such as Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), a nonprofit based in New York, even prepares women for the realistic situations they’ll face in a male-dominated workplace. CAT heavy equipment dealers are so invested in gaining more workers, they have joined together to form the ThinkBIG Service Technician Training Program which provides students with the cost for tuition in order to earn an associate's degree in heavy equipment dealer service technology.

In addition to fair pay and a variety of opportunities, construction work offers a psychologically rewarding career. Unlike a typical desk job, many roles in construction allow women to be more active and challenge their physical and intellectual skills on a daily basis. Seeing the immediate result of their completed work leaves them with a high level of satisfaction.

The lack of female role models is no reason to shy away from the industry. Rather, it gives women the opportunity to take on that role for others. Creating change takes a great effort, but women have the right to explore the opportunities this male-dominated field has to offer. When women hear the voices of other women, only then will the numbers grow closer to equal.

Image credit: Pixabay

Megan Wild is interested in the residential construction industry and likes writing about sustainable home improvement ideas on her blog, Your Wild Home. When she's not ripping up the latest victim of her DIY ideas, she's outside hiking through local trails.

3p Contributor

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