Harassment, hostility, a lack of mentors and stereotyped assumptions are among the significant barriers faced by women in construction trades in the United States, according to a recent report.
In its Women in Construction: Still Breaking Ground report, the National Women’s Law Centre (NWLC) examined roadblocks faced by women in building-related trades and has made a number of recommendations to promote equal opportunity within the sector.
Drawing on publicly available data and using some of its own calculations, NWLC outlines some startling facts, including that women make up just 2.6 per cent of the building workforce despite accounting for almost half of broader labour force, have higher attrition rates compared with their male counterparts, and have not expanded their share of construction trades employment during recent decades despite making progress in other “non-traditional sectors.”
It talks of an ‘FBI’ network (Friends, Brothers and In-laws) and the insular nature of some trades which effectively operates to exclude women and minorities, and describes a number of instances where women faced harassment or outright hostility on site.
Patricia Valoy, who studied civil engineering and performed an internship at a construction management company during her sophomore year, talks of being referred to in demeaning ways for refusing to respond to inappropriate remarks, and on one occasion being alone in a storage room with another male colleague who blocked the door and refused to let her leave unless she accepted his date request.
Mary Battle of Washington, meanwhile, says men on site have often told her to stay home, have children and remain in the kitchen.
The report adds that women also face other barriers, including being steered toward occupations which align with existing gender stereotypes, and a lack of role models and mentors.
It calls for the federal government to work with contractors and unions to resolve the issues as well as the strengthening of anti-discrimination laws in some areas and for greater enforcement of existing legislation.
Commenting on the report from an Australian perspective, National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) chief executive officer Laurice Temple said a number of the challenges faced by women in America were also relevant to their counterparts down under. She added that lasting progress in this area requires a long-term effort to address problems at their root cause, including by understanding basic human behaviour, helping workers understand the consequences of their behaviour and attitudes toward others and broader promotion of diversity in the workforce.
“We understand a lot more in the last five to 10 years about human behaviour and how the brain works,” Temple said. “We know that to get to sustainable change takes significant effort and that we have to maintain those efforts.”
“It starts with thinking what our goals are, how we are going to get there and what our standards are.”
Despite the harassment she has faced, Battle encourages women facing similar barriers to persist so more women are encouraged to pursue careers within the trades and experience the benefits offered in this line of work.
“People often say ‘you have a hard job,’” said Battle, now a business manager with her local trade union. “It’s not a hard job; it’s hard to deal with the people we work with.”
“But no matter what anyone says to you, don’t quit. They’ll harass and belittle you to try to make you quit. But we must stick with it, or else things won’t ever get better for women on the job.”
According to the study (and data quoted within), women in the United States:
- Account for just 2.6 per cent of the construction and extraction trade workforce, compared with 47.2 per cent of the broader labour force
- Have higher overall attrition rates during their apprenticeship (51 per cent versus 46 per cent), especially in carpentry, bricklaying and operational engineering
- Have not significantly expanded their share of construction related employment in trades over the past 30 years despite more than doubling their employment share in other non-traditional areas such as law, law enforcement, medicine, dentistry, firefighting/prevention and engineering
- Have an almost nine in ten chance (88 per cent) of experiencing harassment at work on construction job sites (US Department of Labour Figures), against a 25 per cent chance in general employment.