Growing up, I watched my grandmother work in the field on the family ranch. Every day she was out there helping my grandfather with the chores, such as feeding and caring for the cows and checking on equipment, and still was expected to prepare meals and keep up the house. As I grew older, she began to help me in my first job cleaning trucks in the oil field. We’d take turns sharing stories while getting lost trying to find far off rig locations. To call her a strong and determined woman couldn’t be a bigger understatement.
Although I consider my grandmother empowering, she is by no means a unique case. Women have the ability and drive to do any job they desire. Unfortunately, the success of women in male-dominated industries is steeped in obstacles. If we have learned anything from the successes of women, it’s clear what needs to change: societal notions.
In the U.S., women account for nearly half of the workforce. In construction and extraction? That number is and has been below 3% for decades (around 9% according to OSHA if you count administrative roles). Lack of mentors, stereotyped ideas of what women can do, and sexual harassment have kept that number from increasing. This has turned into a self-perpetuating cycle, where women are not only discouraged from entering the industry, but don’t want to be a part of it, despite perks such as higher wages. In fact, women-dominated fields are those with lower pay and fewer benefits. Among those being paid the federal minimum wage or less (tipped workers), two-thirds are women.
Harassment in construction is often seen as the biggest barrier to women staying in construction and trade industries. According to a study done by a U.S. Department of Labor Advisory Committee on the subject, 88 percent of women construction workers experience sexual harassment at work, compared to 25 percent in the general workforce. What gives?
The issue we see today goes well beyond women entering male-dominated fields. Among nontraditional occupations for women, the percentage of women has improved significantly in the past thirty years. Looking at data from the National Women’s Law Center, comparing occupational divides in 1978-83 and 2012, women in nontraditional occupations has grown in multiple industries. When compared to construction, the evidence is clear, something needs to change:
- Firefighters – 725% increase
- Sheriffs, Bailiffs, C.I. Officers – 113% increase
- Police, Detectives, Private Investigators – 156% increase
- Physicians – 126% increase
- Engineers – 152% increase
- Construction Trades – 18% increase
Support for Women in Construction
To change the conversation, we have to analyze where the industry is and why women are not finding success or growth in construction:
- Harassment – Many women simply avoid entering construction because of the threat of harassment. They believe being on a job surrounded by men will become an atmosphere filled with constant cat-calling, sexual harassment, or denigration.
- Numbers – With women being a rarity in construction, chances to improve a culture are few and far-between.
- Apprenticeships – Apprenticeships are often filled through word-of-mouth. Someone knows a buddy who is looking for an apprentice, an in-law needs a welder, or an old high school friend is looking to get into a new career are all common scenarios when looking for an apprentice. This simple method of finding candidates largely excludes women.
- Stereotyping – Women who do enter construction fields face discrimination arising from gender stereotyping. The assumptions or perceived lack of physical capabilities can make for a hostile work environment where women are viewed as inferior compared to their male counterparts. This type of behavior can damage the psyche of workers already fighting an uphill battle to prove their worth.
Although the current situation leaves much to be desired, the idea of construction being a “boy’s club” only does more to hurt the industry. In a time when we are seeing upwards of 20% growth year over year in construction training for those entering the field, overlooking nearly half of the available workforce in the US is short-sighted. We all need to step back and hire the best candidates for the job, regardless of race, gender, age, social status, or orientation. Discrimination is never pretty. Construction is all about building things up; let’s start with each other.
U.S. Department of Labor Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, Women in the Construction Workplace: Providing Equitable Safety and Health Protection (June 1999), https://www.osha.gov/doc/accsh/haswicformal.html