Building a foundation for women in construction

In construction, only 18 percent of workforce identify as female, compared to 52 percent for other industries

Last year, at a Parade of Homes event in Happy Valley, Ore., I met a woman named Katie. Katie was there to speak to the group about a program she started in 2016 that was suddenly facing rapid growth. About 10 feet away from where she stood was a play house built by participants from Katie’s program – 8- to 14-year-old girls.

Women in Construction week was March 4-10, 2018. On Twitter, if you look at #womeninconstruction, you’ll find several organizations talking about why they want to see more women in the trades. Katie Hughes started Girls Build because she learned how to repair and build things as a child and wanted to pass that information on to other young women. I can no longer count how many times I’ve heard “we would love to have more women in the trades” from employers I work with.

When people think about having women in the trades, many people think of World War II and the women that filled in at manufacturers while men were fighting in the war. Women have been involved in the trades for a lot longer than that, though. Women have frequently made up the majority of employees at clothing manufacturers since the late 1800s. When we think about trades, though, we often think about construction, and seeing women there seems new.

In construction, only 18 percent of the population identifies as female, compared to 52 percent for all other industries (Source: EMSI). Why is that, you might wonder. After all, more than 50 percent of the population is female, and they hold jobs in other high-paying sectors. So, why not construction?

The interesting thing about answering this question is that it depends on whom you ask. Some people who currently or have previously worked in construction will tell you that women don’t work in construction because they can’t – the physical labor and the jobsite culture make for a place where women can’t or won’t be successful.

However, if you talk to women who have worked in the industry, or some of the men who have worked on a jobsite with women, you hear a different story. Women have found success in the construction industry in just as many ways as men. Sometimes they’re lifting heavy items, or operating equipment, or repairing or building something. Sometimes they’re teaching or recruiting. I’ve met women who own or are co-running companies or industry associations, or who are the first person new applicants meet when they want to join a construction company or a union.

I believe that while the number of women in construction might be small, it isn’t because they don’t want to be there or can’t be successful, it’s because they don’t know. When I was in school, I didn’t really understand the trades. My dad worked construction occasionally when he was between jobs, and I thought that’s what it was – a between-jobs kind of job. Working in the trades was never something I considered, either as a woman or a person considering my next step, because I didn’t understand that it was a long-term opportunity. That being an electrician or a laborer or a carpenter was a feasible option for a successful career – and a feasible option for a woman.

When I met Katie, the thing I was most impressed with was that she took something she had learned as a child, understood how important it was and developed a way to pass it on to other young women. Construction has long been an industry where your connection to the industry comes from your father, or uncle, or friend – and while that’s changing, I don’t believe it has to entirely. What I do believe is that getting anyone involved in construction means having honest conversations about why construction is a viable industry. It means accepting women into the industry with open arms, and not assuming they can’t do the job. Getting women involved in construction means highlighting the women who are already in the industry so that women can see themselves in the positions.

Here’s my challenge to you – if you’re reading this (whether you’re in construction or not), find a way to highlight a woman you work with this week. Talk about what that woman has changed about your company or the way you do your work (or has changed about you personally). Show people that, even if your industry doesn’t seem like one a woman would excel in, a woman has made a difference in your workplace. Mentor and encourage the women in your workplace.

A Morgan Stanley report, “A Framework for Gender Diversity in the Workplace,” says more gender diversity can translate to increased productivity, greater innovation, better decision-making, and higher employee retention and satisfaction. These are all good reasons to encourage more women to consider jobs in construction.

Melissa Boles, Industry Initiatives Manager at Workforce Southwest Washington, helps business leaders in construction and health care identify solutions for their workforce development challenges. Reach her at mboles@workforcesw.org or (360) 567-3185.

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