Only 9% of workers in construction are women, a statistic that is lower than in almost any other industry (for comparison, mining is at 13%, transportation at 23%). And in senior positions, women are even more rare. Only 4.3% of board of directors’ seats are held by women in construction companies. While there is progress being made, legacy effects of long-standing gender policies do play a role in how and when women are treated in the construction workplace.
A study (Construction Industry: Demolishing Gender Structures, UNSW) published in The Guardian describes how men on a jobsite are more quickly welcomed into groups and received nicknames (a sign of approval and acceptance). On the other hand, women were more likely to be outsiders and were treated with kid gloves: men would apologize to women for swearing; male researchers were invited to look at pornography; women were not. For better or for worse, women did not have a feeling of belonging, and while we absolutely don’t want the takeaway from this article to be “show women pornography and swear at them,” it is definitely evidence of a demographic that feels unaccepted and undervalued.
But what damage does this male-centric atmosphere really do? Women—whether they work on the jobsite or in the office—quit their jobs 39% faster than do men. (And it’s not just women who suffer from this outdated style of work-life balance. The same long and/or unreliable hours that make construction difficult for women also hurt men: fear of divorce was cited as one of the biggest worries men and women have about their jobs.)
The report highlights four main recommendations:
- Stop the rewarding and promoting of excessive hours, and stop shaming those workers who do not comply.
- Demonstrate a No Tolerance approach to sexism in the workplace and on site, including regards to sexist drawings, wording, and behavior
- Recognizing, recruiting, and celebrating agile and diverse career pathways and career breaks
- Make recruitment/promotion processes and criteria more transparent
So why should a traditional company make these changes? What benefit do women bring to the construction industry? “The construction industry wins because women bring a different perspective to the industry,” says Anita Rathbun, CFO of Triangle Associates, a construction company in Michigan. “They are great at multi-tasking and they are good at relationship-building—all areas that are beneficial to the industry.”
Before the London Olympics, an initiative was launched to double the recruitment of women in the many construction projects for the games. Now, eight years later, women who were given a chance at entry-level work on that temporary project are now leaders in their companies: superintendents, office managers, and executives. Judy Lowe, Deputy Chairperson of the project said “For the first time, it shows what we women in construction have always known instinctively: that there is a terrific future for women in the industry and the enlightened employers will be the ones to reap the benefits.”