The U.S. Census Bureau this week revealed that women who work in construction are paid 17% less than their male co-workers. Another report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research says the gap is less: Women in construction, it said, earn 95.2% on the dollar when compared with male co-workers.
Both numbers put women slightly ahead of the curve when compared with other industries. Nationwide, across all industries, the Census says, women earn 79% of what men who have the same jobs earn. The Institute’s study shows that the pay gap between women and men in construction and mining, which the organization combines into a single category, is the smallest among all industries.
That’s good news for those who might celebrate the narrowing pay gap, and disappointing for those who decry the existence of any gap at all. Still, Peter Philips, a University of Utah economics professor and construction labor expert, says construction wages have far less to do with gender than with job title, where the employer is located, and whether the workers are union members.
Construction Dive spoke in-depth with Philips about potential causes for the wage gap, as well as predictions for what the future may hold for women construction workers:
The back story
Q. Why are construction wages higher for men than for women?
A. Construction workers earn different wages, depending on their craft, on whether they are apprentices or journey workers, and on location. So if you look at Maryland versus California versus Iowa, and if you look at different wages by segment—industrial, heavy commercial, light commercial, residential, retrofit, and remodeling—you get different wages along those different dimensions.
Within those dimensions, it usually doesn’t matter if you’re a male or a female or a wooden post.
Q. Is the gender pay gap evident among union members?
A. Wage differences on the union side of construction are going to be driven by where people are located on that matrix. So if women and men on the union side are not spread out the same way across jobs within the industry, their wages will be different.
For example, a female journey worker electrician in Baltimore will have the same wage as a male journey worker electrician in Baltimore. The union contract doesn’t allow them to have a different wage.
On the non-union side, the contractor who is hiring the workers is not restricted by a collectively bargained contract in terms of deciding what to pay a worker. These “merit” contractors emphasize that they pay their workers differently based on their assessed merit, so you could have two electricians, both in Baltimore, both working commercial construction, but getting paid different wages if the employer has determined that one’s contribution is of greater value than the other’s. If they don’t have a collective bargaining agreement, the pay is based on that company’s assessment of whether they are of the same value.
So you can get wage differences based on occupational differences if a union contract is involved, or based on the employer’s assessment of your productivity if a union is not involved.
Q. Do contractors typically assess women’s work as less valuable than men’s?
A. The merit contractor will say, ‘I’m paying them different wages because I perceive their productivity to be different.’ So now we’re down to perceptions. We do know historically that there have been prejudicial perceptions of what women can do in what is traditionally seen as a man’s job. I wouldn’t dismiss the fact that there could be prejudice on a merit shop job.
Q. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that the pay gap between women and men in construction is 12% narrower than the Census Bureau reported. Why the difference?
A. It’s possible that the two organizations are measuring different situations. For example, someone who goes to a union job site and finds a female journey worker who is paid the same as every other electrician on that job could say there’s no pay gap. Someone else could base the research on an aggregate of women in all construction positions across the country and say there’s a 20% difference in wages between men and women. Which is true? They’re both true.
If you’re not drilling down to an apples-to-apples comparison of location, occupation and market status, the numbers from survey to survey won’t match.
Q. Does the pay gap vary depending on which position a construction worker holds?
A. It doesn’t depend so much on the position as it does on the number of women in higher-paying positions versus the number of men in higher-paying positions. So, for instance, one construction job with high levels of female workers is heavy equipment operators on highways. Women often get that job because a lot of the skills associated with operating heavy equipment are based on your ability to drive a car. Women are exposed to those skills in their everyday lives, but they’re not as likely to be exposed to skills that would lead to a job as a welder. So women are more likely to be operators as opposed to boilermakers. If boilermakers earn more than equipment operators, and more men than women are boilermakers, then the aggregate statistics will show that men earn more than women.
Women in construction are not spread among the jobs as evenly as men are. So you get discrepancies.
The outlook for the future
Q. So the wage gap reveals that women in construction typically work in positions that pay less, regardless of whether a man or woman holds the job? Are women making any headway in moving into higher-paying jobs?
A. That could change in the future. Affirmative action policies have promoted women in the trades in higher-paying jobs, and more women are becoming the owners of small contractor shops.
More women also are accepting clerical and professional jobs in the industry, which could affect the aggregate numbers. There’s also a wage gap between blue- and white-collar workers, and women are more prevalent as white-collar workers than as blue. If you look at blue- and white-collar workers, that’s a true wage gap.
Q. Will the pay gap continue to decrease over time?
A. There are signs of hope. There are efforts to bring women in and programs that recruit women as apprentices for the jobs that men traditionally hold and to help them overcome some of the sexist aspects of construction job sites. But the long-term trends are hard to tease out. I would say women are making slow inroads into construction.
It could potentially pick up as baby boomers step aside or are being pushed aside and more opportunities open up. Contractors are recruiting women. The industry needs talented workers regardless of gender. Second, there’s a mild amount of public policy pressure to hire women, particularly for civil construction. And a final incentive on the union side is that unions are political animals, and they need a membership that looks more like the electorate they’re turning to for support.
The bottom line
Q. Will women’s wages ever equal men’s on construction jobs?
A. There’s going to be a gender gap as long as men and women in construction work different occupations or are in different parts of the country. The day when there’s going to be complete equality of wages for men and women in construction will be the day when men and women work the same level of jobs, equally distributed across the country, and nonunion employers see no difference between men and women. That day, you will see the wages of men and women in construction be even.