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Breaking Down Gender Bias in the Construction Industry

The industry is dominated by male workers, but a critical labor shortage is an opportunity to usher in change

Not all construction workers are men. But the number of women workers is very small — less than 3% of the total in 2015. This photo was taken during construction of the Westlake Center shopping center in Seattle in 1988. A comment posted below the photo at the Seattle Municipal Archives said: "Nice — With so much construction in my neighborhood I don't think I've seen more than 2 women workers — both as crossing guards."
Image Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives via Flickr

By KATE STEPHENSON

The construction trades have long been among the industries with the lowest percentage of gender diversity in the workforce. As of 2015, less than 3% of workers in the construction and extraction trades were women — data on the percentage of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) workers in the trades is not available — and the design field is not much better off. According to a 2012 survey of AIA member firms, only 16% of the AIA’s membership is female. Forty-nine percent of architecture students and 39% of interns are women, but just 17% are firm principals and partners. And these numbers have not changed significantly in the last 30 years.

Why does it matter?

We have a huge shortage of skilled labor in the trades right now. According to the Associated Builders and Contractors, 1.6 million new skilled workers will be needed between now and 2022. We can double the number of people available to fill this need by actively recruiting, supporting, and creating training programs for women, transgender, and gender non-conforming people.

Often, the construction trades are looked down upon by our society and our education system. The industry is not necessarily seen as a place where one can learn professional skills, experience career advancement, or be compensated with a living wage and benefits. We need to change this perception of our industry: Jobs in the building trades, engineering and design can be lifelong careers that support families, providing employment with relatively high wages, especially for women. According to a New York Times article from 2011, the gender wage gap in construction is lower than in any other sector, and women earn 92.2 cents on the dollar of what men earn.

With our community’s focus on high performance construction, integrated process, and building science and technology, the construction profession is becoming more sophisticated and requires a more diverse set of skills. Increasing the profile of our industry will also help attract a diverse workforce that includes more women and gender non-conforming workers.

What are the barriers to increasing gender diversity?

Clearly, there is a lack of role models. Traditional gender stereotyping begins when children are very young, and is reinforced when girls are encouraged to play with dolls and boys are encouraged to play with trucks and toy tools. Often those raised as boys gain building experience by helping their dads with projects around the house, while those raised as girls, even those who express an interest in carpentry, don’t have the same experience working with tools and building materials.

This connects to ideas of leadership, “toughness,” and prowess with physical or spatial problem solving. By the time kids are in high school, there may be a sharp gender-divide in confidence with these skills — one that has nothing to do with natural talent. Instead, it is the result of socialization and unequal access based on stereotypes about talents correlating with gender. The end-result is that when it comes to hiring a laborer or carpenter on the crew, it’s more likely that a male will be hired over a female because they are perceived to be stronger and have more previous experience.

Gender stereotypes also frequently play into how students are “tracked” or exposed to career counseling in high school. Those raised as boys are more often encouraged to pursue vocational trades such as carpentry, welding, plumbing and electrical while those raised as girls are typically pushed towards health care, cosmetology and education. And that’s assuming they have access to vocational education at al l— regardless of gender, the availability of vocational education has been decreasing steadily over the past 50 years.

What will it take to change our field?

We all know that equality and equity are not synonymous. Equality is treating everyone the same. Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. What we need is gender equity. On a practical level, that means putting in extra effort to attract, recruit, train and retain employees in order to increase gender diversity.

Here are a few basic ways to make your business more equitable:

  • Use gender-neutral language in job postings and job descriptions.
  • Respect everyone’s self-identification — call everyone by their preferred name and pronoun.
  • Ensure that adequate gender-neutral restroom facilities are available on every job site.
  • Ensure that all crew members have properly fitting personal protective equipment. (It can often be unsafe for smaller people to use “standard” PPE.)
  • Develop and enforce a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy — not only for your employees but for all subs on a job site.
  • Connect with tradeswoman organizations and post your jobs on their websites.
  • Be willing to challenge your assumptions about an applicant’s ability to perform the work — give people a chance to prove themselves.
  • Make it a priority to hire and work with other subcontractors or vendors that are women- or trans-owned and/or who make it a priority to hire women, trans, and gender non-conforming people.

Surveys of women and LGBTQ workers in the construction industry (including engineers, architects, and specialty trades) consistently show that these employees are frequently targeted with harassment and discrimination by their co-workers.

Some of this treatment is explicitly sexual harassment, and some is subtler, and at times, even well-intentioned. For example, some men see it as just being polite to offer to carry something for a woman, but the offer implies that women or smaller-bodied people can’t lift heavy things or perform the same tasks as their co-workers.

Every female or gender non-conforming contractor I know can tell a dozen horror stories of inappropriate things said to them on a job site. Some are directed at making them feel uncomfortable, unwanted, and disrespected as an authority or leader despite their skills and qualifications. Others — which are often chalked up to “locker room talk” — using vulgar or explicit language.

Changing the company culture is important

Changing these workplace dynamics takes a real intention on the part of business owners and managers. It’s one thing to go out of your way to hire women, transgender and gender non-conforming people in your company; but you also need to do the work to change your company culture so those people feel welcome and thrive in that work environment.

Here are some tips for retention:

  • Sponsor and offer an apprenticeship program to young women, trans and gender non-conforming people and promote the career opportunities available in the trades.
  • Offer a buddy system that starts from the job offer stage and assists women, trans and gender non-conforming people to form relationships, build networks, and transition successfully to the company.
  • End isolation on worksites by assigning women, trans and gender non-conforming people, especially those new to the trades, in pairs or more.
  • Guarantee pay equity within your company.
  • Offer flexibility – family-friendly work schedules will make your business more attractive to all genders.
  • Change the company’s culture to embrace diversity and flexibility as an ongoing commitment to the entire workforce – not just ‘special treatment’ for women, trans and gender non-conforming people.

What are the rewards?

According to cumulative Gallup Workplace Studies, companies with inclusive cultures do better on several indicators than those that are not inclusive: customer satisfaction +39%, productivity +22%, profitability +27%, and turnover down by 22%.

As leaders in the fields of renewable energy, green building, building science, and sustainable design, our success and the success of our industry is contingent on creating inclusive and equitable companies. To support this work, a number of members of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association have collaborated to produce “Breaking Down Gender Bias: A Toolkit for Construction Business Owners.” It’s full of practical tips you can use to introduce these issues into your workplace, either as a business owner or an employee.

Kate Stephenson is a partner in HELM Construction Solutions LLC and an experienced leader in the fields of green building, professional education, sustainability and business management. This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Building Energy, a publication of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association.

14 Comments

  1. Russell Miller | | #1

    First paragraph under:
    First paragraph under: "Barriers", this is why my daughters have learned to use EVERY tool of the trade!

  2. John Clark | | #2

    I have no problems with women who wish to have wrecked
    their knees and backs by age 50 from working in the trades. Go for it !

  3. Nate G | | #3

    Elephant in the room
    The elephant in the room is that on average, men and women are simply drawn to different pursuits. For example, the percentage of male preschool teachers is similarly low: 3.2%

    And that's okay! I'm sure bias and sexism plays a small role, and maybe in a perfectly equalitarian preschool environment, you might have 5 or even 10% male preschool teachers. But 50%? Forget it. Same with construction. Most women just aren't drawn to the heavy physical labor of construction in the numbers that men are. The women there are likely to be more masculine than average, just as male preschool teachers are likely to be more feminine than average. My personal experience in engineering is that the women who really succeed in tech roles are far more masculine than the average women. Other less masculine women who enter the field rapidly move into management. And I think you see this in construction too: there are far more female architects: 20-27% as of 2004.

    It's not a national disaster that men and women tend to gravitate towards different jobs. On the contrary, it's a sign of a healthy society that people don't feel forced into social roles that society urgently needs, but that they aren't very interested in.

  4. Jon R | | #4

    Agreed - self selection
    Agreed - self selection doesn't imply discrimination.

  5. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Maybe it's time for men to be quiet
    ... and listen to women for a change.

    -- Martin Holladay

  6. Curt Kinder | | #6

    Women are simply too smart...
    ...to subject themselves to intermittently available back-breaking labor out in the sun / cold / rain / heat / fog.

    Why work "on" air conditioning instead of working in it?

  7. User avater
    Robert Opaluch | | #7

    Cuts both ways
    Great idea to help solve the construction labor shortage by trying to hire and retain women in construction. Half the population is women so potentially there are a lot of women who could go into construction, but its not clear how many would be interested. Women have many other opportunities. I hired women and a handicapped male temps when I was hiring thirty years ago, but did most of the work solo. The second hardest physical laborer on my job site was a woman, but she only worked a single day. The worker who stayed the longest was a woman studying architecture who wanted construction experience.

    Keep in mind that men aren't welcome in traditionally women's roles either. Yes, not many men in preschool settings. Ever look at the statistics on child custody in divorce cases? Judges routinely award sole custody to women and demand that men turn over most of their paycheck to their ex-spouse. Men are required to work and women have the option, but lose some spousal support if they work. About 9% of single parent head of households are men, but that would include widowers. You need to focus on alternative opportunities for men as much as women, otherwise men have little choice but to work as their main role in life. And construction is one place we are welcome and paid decently.

  8. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Response to Heather Thompson
    Heather,
    Thanks very much for posting your comments. I couldn't agree more.

    -- Martin Holladay

  9. Heather Thompson | | #9

    Groan- For real?
    Are you serious? Let's let go of tired, bitter arguments about masculinity/feminity, preschool and divorce settlements and focus on the content of the article: there is a labor shortage in construction (as there is in preschool education) and there is a huge potential workforce available to fill it. So how do we make it happen? Many of the above comments are counter productive and don't move the conversation forward.

  10. Heather Thompson | | #10

    Thanks Martin. Kudos to you
    Thanks Martin. Kudos to you and to Russell Miller who is teaching his daughters how to use tools.

  11. Ben Graham | | #11

    Lots to learn
    Working in Vermont I have had the opportunity to work with many women and transgendered folk in the trades and honestly tend to prefer working with them. My experience working with women is that they are more positive and focused. I have also learned a lot working with women because they tend to do things a little different than a lot of the men that I work with that has given me a different perspective. I think the women currently in the field tend to be on the exceptional side because of what is needed to be in the construction industry now as a women, but maybe not.
    In general I haven't found that working with women or transgendered people to be lacking in any regard, and as I mentioned it is usually a better experience.
    I think stereotypes and biases are the main barrier to having more women and trans folk in the trades. Definitely isn't inherent lack of skill, strength, stamina, or interest.

    Anyone who has any doubts, sign up for Carpentry for Women at Yestermorrow D/B School taught by Lizbeth Moniz and Patty Garbeck.

  12. Jacob Deva Racusin | | #12

    Changing the Culture
    The comment stream following this post does a pretty good job of articulating the cultural barriers woman and gender non-conforming people have in entering the trades. There is no inherent physiological barrier against women working in the trades, and to suggest that the current trends are somehow divorced from the cultural and societal context from which they are born is circular logic at its worst. As a male contractor, it's hard for me to hear other men justifying this pattern acceptable because they think women simply aren't interested - that's a pretty tone-deaf perspective, and definitely not one borne from actually listening to what women have to say about the issue. Both men and women are negatively affected by the gender dynamics at play in our society, to be sure - it hurts all of us. Claiming victimhood because it's hard being a man does little to help the situation - if you feel aggrieved in this regard, why not work to get more women into the trades, and more men into education?

    I work with women and gender non-conforming people in the trades nearly every day. It is so clear to me how much harder it is to feel comfortable with conventional job site culture as a woman than as a man, and that is a hard position to argue against legitimately. So, we are then left with the question "do we seek to change this dynamic, or not?" We - as men, let alone as tradespeople - have a tremendous amount to gain by working to change our culture to be more inclusive. It helps everyone, women and men alike. Or, we can continue to rationalize why these current patterns are somehow acceptable and favorable, or perhaps just inevitable. If this isn't your issue to take on, so be it, but arguing for the maintenance of a culture that keeps significant portions of our population out of our workforce is working directly against our own interests.

  13. Mary Quigley | | #13

    What the GBA community can be.
    Yesterday morning, I read the first set of comments responding to Kate’s article. It took me aback to see evidence that not all the folks committed to the common pursuit of improving & sharing their “GreenBuilding” methods are as open minded and forward thinking as I’d thought.

    As a community, we have the collective ability to lead our industry in high performance building practices but with some effort we can also lead in responsible business practices.

    We need to embrace diversity in the workplace, making our companies and jobsites safe havens for all people.

    What it takes to be a good boss or a valuable employee in this industry is a good work ethic, flexibility, determination and a willingness to learn.

    Gender isn’t on the list.

  14. Gero Dolfus | | #14

    Inspiring.
    I work with a crew that is very homogenous (almost boringly so). As an immigrant, I am the resident minority, but I’m still a white, married, male, heterosexual like all of my colleagues. The crew has been more diverse in the past and I have no doubt that we would happily have anybody on our team who is committed to our building philosophy and collaborative style of working. This article should inspire all of us to go beyond a welcoming attitude, to actively seek out diversity and reap its benefits in the workplace. If our industry reflects the richness of our society as a byproduct of this effort, even better.

    Gero Dolfus

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