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.