10 ways to create a more inclusive environment for women in construction

Construction has a women problem: Females represent only 9% of the industry, but 47% of the total U.S. workforce. Experts have pointed to a lack of female role models and harassment concerns as two of the most significant barriers to stronger representation of women in the industry. In our article last week, we explored specific examples of harassment and sexism at construction events as an obstacle keeping women away from the profession.

Despite reports of this ongoing problem in the male-dominated industry, many companies and individuals have struggled to come up with solutions. We spoke with construction and HR experts to find specific ways to create a more welcoming environment for women, with tips for companies as well as individual men and women in the industry.

Companies:

Raise awareness

One of the biggest obstacles is the lack of awareness that change and progress is necessary, according to Brent Darnell — whose company Brent Darnell International teaches emotional intelligence to the architecture/engineering/construction industry.

"I think that's part of the problem, that we don't see it as a problem," he said. "But half the population, plus a lot of the minorities, are staying away from the industry because they don't feel included. We have to recognize the issues and create the discussions and policies and start embracing them."

Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of the Solar Foundation, said companies should explore not just the moral side of improving diversity, but the business benefits as well. "There's a lot out there that says that diversity is good for your bottom line. I think that any company that has a vision for success would be remiss not to look at the diversity research," she said.

With a background in human resources within the construction industry, Holly Webster, director of administration at KWA Construction, said she believes it is important to help industry veterans "become more cognizant of the world as it is today, as opposed to what it may have been used to the past."

Darnell added that he believes for the most part, professionals in the construction industry "are really good people who would never hurt anyone intentionally … That's where awareness comes in."

Implement policies for inclusion

Along with working to raise awareness among employees, companies should launch strategies that create a more inclusive work environment, according to Beth Zoller, legal editor for XpertHR.

"It is critical for employers in male-dominated industries such as construction and trucking where females are underrepresented and likely to experience discrimination, harassment and bullying to implement strategies to combat sexism and harassment in the workplace," she said.

Zoller advised employers to consider the following actions to both improve the workplace and minimize the possibility of employer liability: 

  • Implement and enforce policies that prohibit discrimination and harassment based on gender, pregnancy, and family and caregiving responsibilities. 
  • Recognize that harassment can "take many forms" such as emails, face-to-face interactions, gestures, touching, and jokes.
  • Offer regular employee training sessions so they know how to properly identify and report instances of harassment or discrimination
  • Take all complaints seriously, and ensure employees will not "suffer retaliation" for reporting an instance of harassment
  • Implement mentoring, professional development, and networking opportunities specifically for women.

Ensure fair hiring practices

Zoller said it is crucial for firms to offer women applicants an equal chance during the hiring process and select new hires based on merit.

Luecke suggested that companies implement "blind" resume panels, in which company representatives looking through resumes are unable to see the name on the application. "There is inherent bias and discrimination against female applicants. If they are more rigorous with how they recruit by not showing the name of the applicant and identifying features on the resume, you will inherently get a more diverse workforce," she said.

Host informal events to discuss employee experiences

Lorraine Moore, president of Accelerate Success Group, advised employers to host regular events where they can interact directly with women employees. She offered the example of one of her clients that would send a senior executive into the field to have informal lunches with workers to discuss how their jobs are going.

And in addition to women-to-women conversations, companies can hold events for all employees to attend and discuss experiences. "Host informal gatherings to ask what you can do to make this a more welcoming environment," she said.

Men:

Respect the abilities and merit of women colleagues

Experts agreed that for women to feel comfortable in the construction industry, male colleagues should respect that they are vital components of the company.

"Respect our ability. I can't imagine a woman on a job site, in the mud, or sun, or freezing conditions, in a hard hat and steel toe boots, if she didn't want to be there," Christine Miley, founder of CxGBS, said. "You have to love the process, the challenges, and being a part of a diverse team with many talents."

Webster added that, most importantly, men should never question a woman’s ability to successfully perform the job at hand. "Don’t discount them. Don’t discount the potential that they have to offer. And don’t discount the drive that they have," she said.

Don't be afraid to ask questions

Moore said male construction workers often ask whether they should treat women co-workers as "one of the guys," or if they should be careful with what they say around them. "I suggest it’s better to err on the side of being treated like one of the guys than it is to be ultra-careful. The women recognize that they’re being treated differently, and it’s hard for them to feel like they’re part of the team."

However, she added that when men are unsure, the most significant step they can take is to simply ask the women how they would like to be treated. "If you’re not sure, ask. The women actually appreciate being asked, just like anybody else would," Moore said. She suggested asking questions like, "How are you feeling about things here? Is there anything that is uncomfortable for you? Do you feel like you’re being respected?"

Women:

Speak up when harassment or discrimination occurs

All of these experts agreed that the responsibility for improving the environment for women lies not just with men, but with women as well.

"Women have to have very proactive roles. We teach other people how to treat us," Moore said. "If we don't stand up if someone says something that is inappropriate, or if we're not included in discussions with men. Oftentimes they don't even intend to leave us out, they just do it. They don't think about it. If we allow the things like that and we don't address it, then you're not changing anything."

She advised women to report instances of discrimination or harassment to a company's human resources department or to their superiors. Moore emphasized that speaking up when these problems occur helps the situation at hand, as well as the future workplace environment for women in the industry. "It's important for us to remember, we do this not only for ourselves, but to pave the way for others too," she said. "When we speak up about what's happening, we're making it better for all women."

Don’t let sexism become the ultimate roadblock

Riki Lovejoy, president of the National Association of Women in Construction, said she believes that if construction is a woman's passion, that woman shouldn't let the conduct of men keep her from fighting to advance in the industry.

"I think it's just a constant struggle, and (it’s not) just in the construction industry. I think it becomes incumbent on women in general to push through it, get into leadership positions, and make it happen so that we can change the image," she said.

Lovejoy recounted a story about a situation early in her career when she was passed over for a promotion for a male colleague who had significantly less experience. She took her concerns to her supervisor and clearly explained her reasoning for believing that the decision was unfair. And although she wasn't chosen for that promotion, Lovejoy said her supervisor listened to her points and took her perspective to heart.

"Then, within about six months or so, the guy just proved how useless he was, and I did get that promotion," she said. "For me, it was about the recognition about moving into that position. And also realizing that I had to say something … I feel like that's the way women need to be in an industry that is predominantly male. They have to know they have to be strong to stand up for what they know they're capable of doing and what they're doing right."

Create a network with other professional women

Moore encouraged women to find local networking events for women in construction as well as women in a variety of other industries. "They can discover that the challenges they face within construction as a woman are not different from those faced by women in academia and banking and law," she said. "It helps provide perspective and also gives some ideas of how to deal with it."

She added that finding mentors and role models and forming strong relationships can create a sense of camaraderie. "Look for other women in any industry where women don't have most of the jobs. You don't have to look very far. Find somebody who can help," Moore said.

Focus on the future

Lovejoy said women in the industry should recognize that their actions affect not just their own lives, but the lives of the next generation of female construction professionals.

"The industry is in dire need of those types of changes to bring it into the 21st century," she said. "As more women come into these leadership roles, I think that will make the veteran construction individuals understand that it's not a bad thing for these women to be in the industry."

Lovejoy added that although discrimination and harassment is still a major issue, construction has come a long way in her 30 years in the industry.

"I think things are better today than when I first got into the construction industry. It's disconcerting to know we still have to have this conversation 30 years later and that it still exists out there," she said. "Time is the only thing that is going to change that."


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