What women workers say needs to change in construction

It’s no secret that construction has a problem recruiting and retaining women. A new survey […]

It’s no secret that construction has a problem recruiting and retaining women. A new survey from the nonprofit National Center for Construction Education & Research highlights the unique benefits women bring to construction, obstacles they encounter getting into and staying in the industry and advice on what contractors can do about it.

The need for inclusion is dire for construction: Workers are retiring from the industry much faster than new people are being hired, and for every four people who leave, only one enters, according to NCCER researchers. At the same time, the federal government is heavily investing in infrastructure and manufacturing projects through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the CHIPS Act, which is further fueling the demand for workers.

Unfortunately, construction companies are not effectively appealing to women in their recruiting and retention efforts — thereby cutting out the largest segment of the population. Women currently make up just 14% of the overall construction workforce — an all-time high — and only about 4% of craft professional positions.

In order to learn more about womens’ experiences in construction, NCCER surveyed women in the trades and also met with them in groups. The study finds contractors must change the culture and perception of the construction industry, starting with their own projects.

“Despite the significant benefits offered by tradeswomen, the construction industry has largely neglected to include them,” the NCCER study said. “Rebuilding the U.S. manufacturing, energy and transportation infrastructure is a multi-generational challenge that will require a diverse workforce that leverages all facets of our society to overcome it.”

How to recruit, retain tradeswomen

Those surveyed identified clear ways to support women in the industry. Key challenges to be addressed, in order of most-cited by respondents, are:

  1. Discrimination and sexual harassment: Women surveyed had a worse experience on the jobsite than their male counterparts, saying they felt disrespected and subjected to unprofessional treatment more often. Nearly half said they had been the target of derogatory comments or jokes at work. An effective place to start making a change is by establishing and publishing a sexual harassment prevention policy that explicitly lays out the firm’s position and process for complaints.
  2. Bias in the hiring process: Despite the high demand for workers, gender discrimination in hiring is still alive and well, respondents said. Companies often require a recommendation before they interview for a position — a practice that disproportionately hurts women, who are less likely to already know someone in the field. To address this, employers must ensure consistent hiring practices.
  3. Lack of flexibility for care work: Women are responsible for a disproportionate amount of care work in the U.S., and lack of employer accommodations for family matters is a massive barrier to them entering and staying in construction. The solution is to provide mothers and caregivers support through actions such as clear working hours, scheduling flexibility and consistent PTO policies between office and field positions.
  4. Lack of training opportunities: Respondents identified the need to establish training programs to bring women into the industry, specifically into the trades.
  5. Unequal treatment: Women said they fully expect to be held to the same standard, receive the same training, have the same career advancement opportunities and get the same pay if they do the same work — but they’re often not treated as equals.
  6. Few women in site leadership positions: Women want to get into leadership positions, but 57% said they had never had a female supervisor. Without a clear and intentional plan in place to identify and develop potential women leaders, the issue will continue.
  7. Poor jobsite experience: Two problem areas on the jobsite that respondents discussed the most were bathroom facilities and properly fitted workwear and equipment. They noted a lack of access to restrooms stocked with feminine hygiene products as well as no appropriate, discreet way to dispose of them. Most construction protective equipment and clothing are not designed to fit women, even though OSHA has identified improperly fitted PPE as a safety issue.

Unique strengths

Not only can recruiting women into the trades help make up for the quantity gap in the skilled construction workforce, but they also bring unique qualities to the jobsite that contribute to an improved work environment, the NCCER study found. The biggest benefits from hiring women include a greater focus on teamwork, attention to detail, jobsite cleanliness and organization as well as improved safety performance.

Respondents said that many of their male colleagues largely focused on personal achievements rather than the overall performance of the crew, while women are more focused on making sure that the entire team is functioning at a high level. Management team members shared how women are also much more focused on following the prescribed work process as designed instead of relying on experience and physical strength, which can result in improved safety and fewer injuries.

Women typically follow the plan and think through how they can complete work without rushing, and tend to follow directions and pay more attention than their male counterparts. All of this leads to an improved working environment for everyone, the study found.

Including women “brings benefits beyond sheer numbers and ultimately results in a better work environment, project execution and safety,” NCCER said.