Challenges For Women in the Construction Industry

Comer Construction: Leading the Way for Females in Construction Management

Women In Construction: A New Reality

When many of us think of the construction industry, we think of groups of men. The stereotypical image of a construction worker is of a strong man, covered in grime, wearing a hard hat. And because over 90% of today’s construction workforce is male, that image not wholly unrealistic. But the reality is changing.

No matter how you look at it, it’s hard to argue that women have been dramatically underrepresented in the construction industry. In fact, there are few industries that remain so male-dominated in the 21st century. While other traditionally male industries, including the military, law enforcement, and first responders, have worked to welcome more and more women into their ranks, construction has remained one of the few male-dominated fields. In other job categories, women, who currently make about half of the total working population, are well represented. Only 9% of people employed in construction are women.

But things are changing. Construction is facing new challenges and an employment crisis. It’s an industry in transition, and it’s no longer just for men. To meet the increasing demand for skilled construction workers, more and more women are attending trade and vocational schools, and record numbers of females are entering construction-related apprentice programs. As women ramp up to take advantage of professional opportunities, construction companies across the nation are also gearing to find and recruit women to help their companies grow in the 21st century.

Construction’s Labor Crisis

Why are construction companies changing their recruiting strategies? Like many other businesses in the U.S., construction can’t find enough workers to fill openings.  The Department of Labor has been tracking job turnover data for twenty years. This year, for the first time since they started tracking, the DOL reported that the number of open jobs has exceed the number of people looking for work.

In fact, in March of 2019, The Department of Labor reported that January was that 11st consecutive month in which the number of job openings exceeded the number of people looking for new jobs. And the areas hit hardest by this shortage are blue collar and trade professions like construction.

In the United States, the construction industry is already big, and it’s getting bigger. The latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Labor reported that in May 2018, 7,210,000 people worked in the U.S. construction industry. Millions of American men and women are working on site preparation, grubbing and clearing, laying foundations, building structures, expanding transportation systems, public works projects, energy construction, mining infrastructure, agriculture construction, retail infrastructure, and more.

The labor shortage is real, and it’s changing the construction industry for the better. With all kinds of construction workers in high demand, women are finding that they are now serious contenders for good jobs in construction, and that it’s now easier to secure a rewarding position in this exciting industry.

The increases in request for construction projects, combined with the tight labor market is creating a log jam for growth. To meet this tremendous pent up demand for construction and public works projects, the construction industry must grow quickly. As many companies focus on hiring women for the next generation of workers, the percentage of women in construction should increase significantly.

The loss of business and revenue is an urgent driver for any type of business. According to the Associated Builders and Contractors, construction is expected to grow by 3% in 2019 and another 3% in 2020. That translates into a predicted $50 billion jump in construction spending, and more than 300,000 newly created jobs. But these numbers hide the real imbalance between proposed projects and the ability to complete projects. The U.S. construction industry estimates that its members are losing a combined $2.4 billion per year in revenue because of the industry’s employee shortage and the resulting inability to keep up with demand.

To add to the dilemma, many construction workers are aging out of the market. While more and more Millennials are going to college to pursue white color and degree-driven careers, the bulk of today’s blue collar workers, baby boomers, are retiring. For the first time in decades, blue collar and trade school workers are in greater demand than college graduates.

That’s why the construction industry in the United States is facing one of the most dramatic and unrelenting labor shortages ever. In the construction industry, it’s getting harder to find and hire qualified people to pave roads, grade sites, wire buildings, and build bridges. As a result, the competition among construction companies to hire good employees is heating up.

Why do We Need More Women Working in Construction?

In today’s go-go economy, employers in construction are pressured to recruit more people with the skill sets needed to build. As the current skilled workforce ages into retirement, and the need for construction expands, the already dire labor shortage increases each year. That’s why employers are doing everything they can to get people into training and onto the job site.

As the U.S. labor market gets tighter and tighter, the race to find new employees has finally convinced the construction industry that this is the time to expand the hiring pool, increase workplace diversity, and to start attracting more women to construction.

Nationwide, all kinds of contractors, construction firms, and engineering firms are rethinking old hiring practices, and aggressively looking for more effective ways to recruit women to fill the explosion in newly created positions in management, engineering, technology, the operation of heavy equipment, logistics, welding, plumbing, woodworking, metal work, skilled construction, construction laborers, sales, marketing, and more.

While only about 9% of construction employees today are women, that’s a positive increase from the past. In 1990, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that women made up less than 2% of the construction workforce. And in 1990, a higher percentage of women in the construction industry worked in primarily in office and administration jobs.

Because of the labor shortage, women are now actively recruited to become building inspectors, project managers, and construction site managers, as well as estimators, laborers, heavy equipment operators, and skilled contractors. Maybe that why a recent NAWIC report suggested that with all types of construction workers in high demand, women are finding it easier to find a job in the field, and are finding more employers now want to hire women.

To increase the size of its workforce, the construction industry has made a long-term commitment to increasing the diversity of their workforce. While some construction companies pursue diversity because of a change in cultural expectations, other seek diversity to become more attractive for the government contracts which award points for diversity.

The construction industry also has financial motives for recruiting women. These companies are finally paying attention to what business researchers and experts have been saying for decades: diversity is good for business.

While many industries have been working on increasing their workplace diversity for decades, the construction world has been exceedingly slow to follow their lead. But to deal with fierce competition and to address ever-increasing financial stakes, the construction industry is now listening to a new breed of business leader. These experienced consultants are helping construction companies run their businesses like Fortune 500 companies. That’s why a recent study by McKinsey got so much attention in the construction world. McKinsey reported that companies that rank in the top 25% of diversity for gender, racial, and ethnic diversity are more likely to have above average financial returns. Companies in the bottom 25% of diversity are statistically less likely to achieve above-average returns. The research not only suggest that diversity matters, it also reports that diverse workforces deliver better profits.

Challenges for Women in Construction

While many women are interested in a career in construction, there’s no denying that the industry presents challenges. In addition to being outnumbered 9 to 1, women who work in construction are walking into a world that has long been tailored to men’s needs. While changes are being made, some aspects of the construction world may come as a surprise to some women. From the hard hat to the toilet, women in construction are going to encounter challenges.

Construction is a Male-Dominated Industry

While the construction industry has made it clear that it wants to hire more women, construction is an industry that is still overwhelmingly male. Women in construction may find they are the only female on a worksite, or even the only woman in the company. Even a strong, confident woman may feel out of place among so many men. And while the ratio of men to women is starting to change, a woman starting in construction may have to wait years before she is no longer outnumbered by men. This feeling of being different or apart might be a new experience, and it can be hard for some women. For women who feel outnumbered, finding support networks and organizations of women in the industry will be especially important.

Lift Requirements are Sometime Limiting

While many jobs in construction rely on mind over muscle, some parts of construction are still physically challenging and require an enormous amount of brute strength. That’s why many jobs in construction require the ability to do heavy lifting. That’s also why, for many jobs in construction, you’ll find job descriptions that will include the requirement to be able to lift or load a certain weight. While these lift requirements do eliminate people who lack exceptional strength, these restrictions are necessary to ensure that the person doing the job is able to safely complete common tasks that are required within the position.

Although some of the weight or lift requirements may exclude some women from qualifying for a task, it’s very important to take those restrictions seriously. They are developed to keep the workers safe and to make sure a company is not hiring people who might endanger themselves or the people around them. While many women can easily handle lift requirements (and many men can’t,) no matter which gender you are, be honest about your physical abilities.

And if you can’t meet the lift requirements in a job listing, don’t get discouraged. It doesn’t mean you’re unqualified to work in construction. Lift requirements only apply to very specific jobs and vary greatly among tasks. While the lift requirement on one job may be 75 pounds, it may be only 10 pounds on another listing. And many construction jobs have no lift requirements. If you can’t meet the lift requirements in one position, keep looking. Another closely-related position probably exists with different physical requirements.

Early or Irregular Hours, Long Summer Hours

For many types of construction work, especially for work on the site, hours can be erratic. Because outdoor work requires workers to work long hours in good weather, to make up for short hours during bad weather, shifts can be erratic. And they can start before the sun rises.

For women with school-aged children, these kinds of hours on the worksite can be a deal-breaker. When a parent is asked to start before dawn, and work extra-long days in the summer months, it makes it hard from some women (and men) to balance childcare and work.

If this is an issue for you, talk to your supervisor and find out if you can alter your shift, work out a job share, or pivot into a shift job with clear starting and ending times. While these are unusual accommodations in the construction world, in a tight labor market you may be able to get your supervisor to work with you to get you to come on board, or to prevent you from quitting to find the kind of steady hours that will allow you to balance other parts of your life more efficiently.

Sexual Harassment

Sometimes, when there are lots of men on the job and only a few women, men can say or do things that are inappropriate, uncomfortable, or even harassing. While there's limited information about this topic in the construction world, most experts agree that this industry needs to improve its approach to creating safe and appropriate workplaces, on sites and in offices.

The last comprehensive studies on the subject 20 years old. In 1999, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that 88 percent of women in construction reported being sexually harassed.

However, the standards for workplace behavior in the construction continue to rise. Employers take harassment issues seriously. Every employer is aware that women have well-defined legal rights to work in a non-threatening workplace, and employers know it is their responsibility to make changes needed to provide this a safe and productive work environment.

For women in any industry, harassment is a concern. Take the initiative to talk with your supervisor about the current culture in your company. Have discussions about the expectations for appropriate behavior, and make sure you understand the benefits and the challenges of the work environment up front. If you have concerns, most companies want you to discuss issues with them immediately, so they can work with you and other employees to devise possible strategies to eliminate issues.

Shared Toilets on Worksites

The phrase “it’s a man’s world” takes on a new meaning when it comes to sharing port-a-potties. If you enjoy a clean ladies’ room with well-stocked towels, you will be inevitably disappointed on the worksite. Because women are consistently in the minority on the worksite, few construction projects offer gender-specific toilets. Instead, prepare yourself for the challenges of the unisex portable toilet. While these can be pretty unpleasant, it’s a fair assumption that men don’t like them much either.

Safety Equipment

Many types of safety equipment and apparel must be form-fitted to be safe. For example, an oversized welder’s jacket might catch on fire. Hard hats that don’t adjust to your head properly won’t protect you from falling debris. And bulky, oversized, safety gloves can wreak havoc with fine motor skills. For women who are short, small-framed, or very light, these safety hazards are amplified.

However, as more women enter the construction industry, some clothing options have developed that are designed especially for women in the construction field. In the past, women have done the best they could with men’s cuts and sizes. Now more companies like D.E. Gemmill Inc., are working to provide custom-fitted items designed to increase the safety and effectiveness of women on the worksite.

These kinds of manufacturers are rethinking how construction industry gear fits, to keep all sizes of women safe on the job. Women’s construction gear includes fitted reflective jackets, fitted flame-resistant clothing, women-sized safety gloves, and hard hats and eye gear sized for smaller heads.

There are Real Financial Advantages for Women in Construction

The current labor shortage means that the newly trained construction employees will be paid better than some of their predecessors.  Workers in high demand will get attractive benefits programs and vacation packages. More workplaces are actively rethinking their work cultures to make the worksite and the office more friendly to women and more compatible for a diverse workforce.

One of the most attractive aspects of a career in construction for men and women is that you can learn a trade relatively quickly that will provide a good income for decades to come. While there are few fields open to women that offer good pay and benefits without a college education and years of working up the ladder, for many jobs in construction, college is not required. Some positions offer on-the-job training and apprenticeships. 1- or 2-year programs in trade or vocational school will also give you an advantage.

And the benefits in construction are becoming more appealing than ever. In a recent survey by the Associated General Contractors of America found that 82 percent of contractors expected that recruiting and hiring qualified workers will become harder. That same research reported that 60 percent of construction and contracting firms said they are increasing base pay rates to attract more employees. 36 percent provided incentives or bonuses, 24 percent improved employee benefits, and 56 percent of planned to increase investments in training and development.

And while women in all industries still make less money than their male counterparts, this gap narrows considerably in construction. Across all industries and markets, women in the U.S earn an average of 81.1 percent of what their male counterparts make, but the gender pay gap closes in construction. Women in construction make 97.5 percent of men’s pay. That’s an 18 percent reduction in pay inequality.

Heavy Equipment Operation Removes Some of the Inequities

While it may be hard for women to dominate in the types of construction jobs that require brute strength, most jobs in construction do not require exceptional physical power. And that means that there are other jobs and types of construction work in which women are equally capable of excelling. Men have no advantage over women in jobs that require mastery of skills like plumbing or carpentry. Men and woman can both provide key attributes like a level head, leadership abilities, manual dexterity, solid communication skills, attention to details, and spacial intelligence.

One of the most striking examples of an industry equally suited to men and women is in the category of heavy machinery operation.

While women are vastly underrepresented among the thousands of operating engineers and other construction equipment operators today, that can and should change. The heavy equipment category includes hydraulic cranes, boom cranes, tower cranes, excavators, backhoe loaders, bulldozers, crawler loaders, trenchers, scrapers, pavers, compactors, feller bunchers, pile boring machines, and more.

Heavy machinery is essential to any construction project, and capable operators are in high demand. Operating heavy equipment requires knowledge and a level head but operating these mechanical monsters does not require exceptional strength or stamina. People experienced in the operation of heavy equipment can be some of the highest paid employees on a worksite. Certain types of crane operators are among the highest paid employees in the field.

These jobs are considered skilled labor positions. They tend to pay well and provide better job security. And because people stick with these high-paying positions throughout their career, the category of heavy machinery operators is one hardest hit by the exodus of Baby Boomers. Many of today’s heavy equipment operators have been on the job for decades, and there are not enough skilled operators in place to replace their numbers.

Trade schools and apprenticeships are helpful in training women for this field, but many heavy equipment operators learn through on-the job training. Often an employee begins by using light construction equipment, under the supervision of an experienced operator, and then is trained on the use of heavier equipment.

If you’re interested in pursuing this career, it’s important to know that all heavy equipment operators need a standard driver's license and should also get a commercial driver's license. Special licenses are required in many states to operate specific equipment such as cranes backhoes. Taking test and getting your operating licenses before job interviews will greatly increase your chances of landing a good-paying job. Requirements vary by state, and your state’s Department of Transportation or Department of Labor will have information on the requirements needed to obtain a license.

Because there is no real gender advantage or disadvantage when hiring women vs. men for the operation of heavy equipment, it’s surprising that women are so dramatically underrepresented in this field. According to a news article published in the Boston Globe, the gender disparity in heavy equipment operation is even more marked than in other construction jobs. Women are massively outnumbered in many areas of heavy machine operation and maintenance.

  • Only 0.5 percent of service technicians and mechanics are women
  • Only 0.8 percent of tower and crane operators are women
  • Only 1.5 percent of mining machine operators are women
  • Only 2.3 percent of other construction equipment operators and operating engineers are women

Reviewing these low representation numbers are especially frustrating when you consider that there is no gender-based stereotype in place to prevent women from doing well as a heavy equipment operator. While the work is hands-on, and much of it is done on a worksite, there are few demanding physical or stamina requirements in place. While some states require you to pass a physical for some type of licenses, the physicals don’t require exceptional strength or stamina. Men or women of average physical condition can operate most heavy equipment. In fact, the lack of physical exhaustion is one of the job’s most appealing features, and one reason so many operators have stayed with the job throughout their career.

The good news is that the inequality is changing. The small number of women that are already working as heavy machine operators are blazing the trail for the women who come after them. These skilled, capable women are changing employers’ (and employee’s) minds about gender stereotypes. Women in these heavy-equipment jobs are often commended for their precision, careful maintenance of the machines, and ability to train thoroughly.

In an article for Equipment World, one engineer commented on the benefits of hiring women as heavy equipment operators:

Education: Women operators are usually more eager than men to pursue additional educational opportunities. Because they are in a man’s world, these women try to stay ahead of the curve. This dedication to training and education also contributes to the rise in female leadership in the construction industry.

Machine Operation:

Many women take their time learning the equipment. While some men want to rush in and try to do too much, too early, women on the job tend to be more cautious and progress slower. This thorough approach is an asset and helps these women do better in the long run.

Attention to Detail:

Women who operate heavy machinery tend to take better care of their machines. They are usually careful about maintenance and very thorough.

Attitude and Employability:

As the minority in the workplace, women feel they must outperform their male counterparts. They usually try harder because they are competing in an environment that has been dominated by men for decades. This attitude and dedication make women a great choice as a heavy equipment operator.

Industry Networking and Support Groups for Women

Construction has long been a male-dominated industry, and women entering the field may feel intimidated or overwhelmed. Some of the larger construction companies are aware of these challenges and have created internal programs that provide a positive atmosphere for their female employees which may include formal mentorship opportunities.

However, in smaller organizations, women may want to reach out to their colleagues in other companies for mentoring and support. That’s why women across the country have joined to form their own support channels, offering additional networking and development opportunities for industry peers. Professional organizations focused on women in construction can provide advice, information, training, and even valuable networking.

For women working in or seeking construction roles, the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) provides a supportive professional organization for women in the industry. They also post jobs and promote networking for women in heavy equipment. Professional Women in Construction (PWC), Women in Construction Operations, and Women Construction Owners & Executives USA (WCOE) also provide information, advice, conferences, and educational resources.

Getting Started in Construction

Whether you’re just out of high school, or looking for a new career, construction is ready to hire women. Careers in construction and the heavy equipment industry don’t require a college degree but can deliver life-long opportunities for women.

With a significant portion of the heavy equipment industry’s workforce nearing retirement and a marked lack of young workers or new hires available to take their place, employees recognize that the employment gap is reaching a crisis point. These companies need reliable workers who are willing to learn and grow with the company.

For on-site construction and heavy equipment operation, women need a strong mechanical aptitude and well-developed interpersonal skills. A willingness to work hard and learn as much as you can is also a valuable asset. Careers in construction and heavy equipment offer great pay, good benefits, and opportunities for career growth. And that’s a win for everyone.