The pervasive shortage of construction workers has led some in the industry to target women for recruitment. But women don’t seem to be choosing the construction industry, at least not in the numbers that some have hoped for and not in the trades, where workers are desperately needed.
So how many women are working in the construction industry? A frequently cited figure from groups like the National Association of Women in Construction, which is leading the charge in recognizing Women in Construction Week this week, has participation at about 9%, and the last 25 years or so of Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Surveys bears that out. However, that figure includes administrative, executive and office positions, categories that have almost always have a decent number of women.
The statistics for trade involvement tell a much different story.
The percentage of women in construction overall has hovered somewhere between 9% and 10% since 1996 and is currently at 9.9%. But of the 8.3 million that were employed in field production of the construction and extraction industries in 2018, only 3.4% were women.
Building inspectors (14%), painters (7.2%) and helpers (5.6%) saw the highest participation by women last year, with their percentages in trades like carpet installation, carpenters, drywall hangers and electricians landing somewhere between 1.9% and 3.7%.
Of the 40 trades listed under the construction and mining category, more than half didn’t include enough women to muster up a statistically significant percentage at all. These included such in-demand trades as plasterers and stucco masons, iron and rebar workers and solar panel installers.
The percentage of women classified as construction managers, however, has grown from 5.9% in 2003 to 7.7% in 2018.
Why women stay off jobsites
So what is it that is keeping women away from construction trades? For one, the roles have traditionally been filled by men, so some women might find the work environment intimidating, especially given accounts of occasional harassment and inequity.
Last year, for example, carpenter Linda Dugue sued her former employer, Long Island-based Pabco Construction Corp., alleging that the company treated her and other female employees unfairly. In her lawsuit, Dugue claimed that women on Pabco jobs were not offered the same opportunities for training, overtime and career advancement as men were and that she was the subject of derogatory and discriminatory comments. The suit alleges that several women were eventually fired and replaced with men.
Or it could be that women, like many men, who were preparing to make construction their career before the Great Recession decided otherwise, chased off by a then-tanking industry. And if the results of a 2017 National Association of Home Builders survey are correct, younger women, along with their male counterparts, are rejecting the idea of a potentially physically demanding career, despite talk about how technology is going to make many construction jobs less taxing in the future.
Three-quarters of those ages 18 to 25 that the NAHB surveyed knew what careers they would pursue, but only 3% of that group had chosen construction. Undecided survey participants responded overwhelmingly (63%) that there was little to no chance that they would choose a career in construction no matter the pay, with almost half of that group wanting a less physical job and 32% responding that they considered construction work too difficult.
But the news isn’t all doom and gloom for the future of women in the trades. There are stories that have recently popped up about more young women entering apprenticeships and other training programs, a group that could grow the currently dismal statistics if organizers can draw and maintain enough interest.
In New York City, Non-Traditional Employment for Women (NEW) offers a two-month apprenticeship training program that can be the first step toward a union construction job for some of those completing the NEW program, as 15% of local union apprenticeships are set aside for NEW graduates. Meanwhile, the Boston-area Northeast Center for Tradeswomen’s Equity helps women gain access to apprenticeship programs for virtually all union trade positions and educates them on the excellent pay opportunities, benefits and career opportunities available.
And these types of local programs are growing.
Convincing women they belong in construction and that the trades will treat them well represents a shift in mindset that won’t happen overnight. It’s a long game, but with persistence on the part of those in the position to influence and educate, it can be won.