This week, March 4-10, is the week we celebrate Women in Construction. One of the traditional activities in any commemorative week is to recognize the contributions those being celebrated have made to the cause. In the design and construction industry, there are many contributions by women to recognize; however, you may have to look harder than you should need to.
There is no dispute this industry has been male dominated at all levels and career paths for its entire history. The National Association of Women in Construction estimates that women make up only 9% of the workforce – and that has grown in the past decade. I recently walked a jobsite and noticed women electricians, painters, hanging sheetrock, and laborers – more than I would have seen a decade ago, but probably not 9% of the workforce there. We’re making progress as an industry, but we need to do better. We need to attract more workers and women are a largely untapped segment of the labor pool.
A 2013 study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicated the challenges women face in the construction industry include:
- Lower pay than male counterparts for the same level of work
- No role models
- Sexual harassment
- Limited training
- Unfair performance evaluation
- Received more clerical tasks
- Fewer leadership opportunities
I spoke with the daughter of a friend of mine who is a young engineer in her first year working for one of the largest and most respected general contractors. I asked her if she encountered any of the challenges listed above in her projects. While she admitted it was still too soon to assess a number of these issues, it was clear that several of them struck home.
We know in our business that projects in the field develop subcultures and her experience may not reflect the company’s culture. Nonetheless, it is still her experience. Good mentors, role models and a strong vigilance to avoid old behaviors and stereotypes are absolutely critical.
In the not-too-distant past, we lost a generation of talented engineers to the tech industry. We cannot afford to lose out to other industries because our culture has not progressed with the times. It is incumbent on all of us to guard against these challenges and remove the barriers.
Make no mistake about it, the industry needs more women. Moreover, the industry needs more skilled trades, engineers, project managers, architects and the like, and if we do not make it a more attractive industry for women, we are ignoring half of our potential workforce.
It is difficult to have discussions with leaders in any traditionally male-dominated industry without talking about the dwindling workforce crisis. There are many references to this in the media today: from Mike Rowe Works to campaigns by industry organizations to engage at the high school level, and many more.
The historical perception that the trades are a career path you take if you cannot make it a “white collar” career is, fortunately, changing. A March 6 article in the Wall Street Journal references a female honor student at a Pittsburgh-area high school who is planning to attend a vocational school to study Diesel Mechanics. Her parents, teachers, and even her dentist, tried to convince her to go the traditional university route, but she is set on pursuing her passion. “Besides,” she said, “a good diesel mechanic can make $80 an hour.”
There is a certain economic logic that argues against the idea of pursuing a college degree and then spend years paying off huge student debt to work in a profession you did not go to school for. In fact, this is a key differentiator of Generation Z. Brian Dorsey, President of the Institute for Generational Kinetics, notes that their research on GenZ, today’s high school students, shows they are much more sensitive about debt and endeavor to avoid it as much as possible. They are sometimes referred to as the “throwback generation.”
This holds promise for the future of skilled trades and somewhat non-traditional career paths, e.g. women in construction. But, we have a long way to go.
We need to be proactive in reaching out to high school students, talking about the industry and making it exciting. We need to empower potential candidates to understand that whether you are an engineer, an architect, a construction manager or a skilled tradesperson, you are a professional. A skilled electrician, plumber, carpenter, painter, etc. is a professional and that trade should be respected and referenced as such, especially as we promote these career paths.
As you go from office to home, take a moment to look at the buildings and infrastructure that surrounds us, and think about the expertise and craftsmanship required to create them. We create the foundation for progress in most of what we do as a society. What you are looking at is the hard work and expertise of countless men and women in all aspects of our profession of building.
In a scene from the movie Pretty Woman, the character played by Julia Roberts asks Richard Gere’s character what he does. When he explains he buys companies and breaks them up, she asks something to the effect of, “why don’t you build something?” – it is a turning point in the movie.
We are in a noble profession.
There is such great joy in seeing a project you worked on become occupied and serve its purpose so well! How can we get more people to experience that joy?
At Austin, we’ve celebrated WIC Week by giving roses to the women in the office and posting researched stories of women who have made significant contributions to our industry going back to the 19th century. On a regular basis, we’re also active with area high schools and the ACE Mentor program, encouraging the next generation of design and construction professionals. There are many ways to be involved and much more we can all do.
So, thank you to all the women who have chosen this occupation for everything you bring to it, including and especially a courage to enter a traditionally male-dominated industry. Make us better. Help us get out there and promote that feeling of joy and accomplishment that creating a built environment offers.
Objectives of the National Association of Women in Construction:
– To encourage women to pursue and establish their careers in the construction industry.
– To unite for their mutual benefit, women who are actively employed in the various phases of the construction industry.
“I can say the willingness to get dirty has always defined us as a nation, and it’s a hallmark of hard work and a hallmark of fun, and dirt is not the enemy.”
“Good jobs look a lot like kids playing and adults working.”