As you know, the construction industry has suffered from a labor shortage for many years. One way to help address that shortage is to attract — and retain — workers from groups that have been under-represented in the industry. One such group is women.
It was recently Professional Women in Building Week, so we took this opportunity to speak with women who work in the industry to get their take on the barriers women face, and how construction companies can attract and retain women.
Explicit sexism and implicit bias
Pam Allen is the Director of Operations at ProHome. She’s been with the company for five years, but worked in the construction industry for over a decade prior to that. She says that, in the past, she encountered quite a few occasions when there was resistance to her position in an organization. She recalls one incident when she was a project manager for a supplier to commercial construction:
“A man on one of the projects I was managing called my manager and said that a woman shouldn’t be in my position and demanded that I be replaced. My manager refused and told the client that not only was I fully qualified to take care of his project, I was the best person to do so.”
Other women shared similar stories. Lisa Cassone is Executive Vice President of Cassone, a New York company that provides modular buildings. “Years ago, I was bidding on a job in NYC for Madison Square Garden. We were sitting around a large conference table and the project manager came in and said, ‘We’re just waiting for the guy from Cassone’. I was the only woman at the table and had already signed in. I don’t know who they thought I was or why I was there!”
Such explicit sexism is presumably becoming rare these days, but it still exists. “Some of our suppliers won't send their invoices to me,” says Martha Trela, CEO of Urban Bloc, a design-build firm that creates buildings from repurposed shipping containers. “They'll only send them to my business partner, who’s a man. Initially, I took offense at that. But that's the context in which they’ve worked for years. It’s what they’re used to.”
Along with explicit sexism becoming rarer, Allen also believes that “implicit bias against women in the industry has diminished.” However, she thinks that sexist stereotypes do still exist and “having more women in leadership positions can encourage other women to follow an interest they might otherwise be discouraged from pursuing due to those stereotypes.” Having women in leadership positions in a company demonstrates to potential hires “that women are seen as valued members of the organization.”
How to attract women to the construction industry
Allen suggests that companies can “encourage young women to explore a career in construction by working with high schools and trade schools to bring back what we used to call ‘shop class’ where students can learn some of the basics of construction. They could also offer internships to young women so they can explore different areas of construction from architecture to project management to field supervisors.” Funding scholarships for women to pursue construction-related degrees is another way companies can foster this segment of the workforce.
Cassone mentioned various organizations that businesses might choose to partner with or support in their missions to encourage young people and women to join the industry:
ACE provides afterschool programs designed to attract high school students to careers in architecture, construction, and engineering, including skilled trades.
Tools & Tiaras provides workshops and programs for girls and women who are interested in mechanical, industrial, technical, or trades careers.
Non-traditional Employment for Women [NEW] prepares, trains, and places women in careers in the skilled construction, utility, and maintenance trades.
Of course, bringing more women into the industry doesn’t change attitudes overnight, and women need to be prepared for that. Structural engineer, Virginia Kaelin, says, “We need to reach college women who start in engineering and let them know that, yes, they're going to have to fight. And, yes, they’re going to have to be better than their male colleagues. But the fight’s worth it.”
Retaining women employees
As more and more technology — such as robots and robotic assistive devices — is used, some of the work that has been seen as too physically demanding for women is becoming more accessible to everyone, regardless of strength and size. Richard Murdock, CEO of Autovol, says that robotics has helped his company hire more women and younger people. At his automated modular construction plant, 31% of the employees are women. This contrasts with construction as whole, where only about 11% of the workforce are women, according to NAHB [the National Association of Home Builders].
So, if a construction company makes use of technology — of any kind, not just robotics — it’s probably a good idea to showcase that on the company website and social media accounts. We can safely assume that potential hires will look online at any potential employers.
“Companies have to make a conscious decision to be inclusive. Diversity and inclusion need to be among their core values,” Allen says. “They may need to make changes to their recruiting and hiring practices, and develop learning and leadership paths for women within their organizations.” In the end, it’s action that makes a difference and if companies are serious about wanting to hire and retain women, they need to take action.
For example, given that childcare still often falls disproportionately to women, companies that make room for that will have more success in retaining women employees. “Flexibility is important,” Kaelin says. “One of the women I worked with at a previous company needed to take some time off to be home with her kids, but the company wasn’t flexible. She had to quit just to take three months off. It was a huge waste of talent and knowledge when she left."
If the construction industry can not only attract more women, but also retain them by taking the steps necessary to ensure their skills are valued, their contributions recognized, and their experience retained perhaps a real dent could be made in the labor shortage.