Could Encouraging Women into Construction Help Mitigate the Industry Labor Issue?

This article is part of a blog series on the labor shortage in the construction industry in 2024, exploring some remedies to this crisis.

Being a woman in the construction industry is full of challenges. The sector is laden with hostile surroundings. Ladies are isolated and often subjected to sexist remarks and sexual and physical harassment. The industry is male-dominated so getting deference from male colleagues continues to be an issue for women, who continuously suffer from demeaning criticism.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 7.7 million people were working in the construction industry in the USA. 14% of them were female. This makes it less than 1% of the total of women in the workforce in the USA. It presents the industry with a great opportunity to tap into the 99% of women working outside the sector.

The industry solutions to overcome the poor perceptions of women working in construction and close the gender gap could help surmount the labor shortage crisis by providing specific coaching and training to female staff.

The number of women working in the industry is increasing. For example, a Randstad survey found that in the United Kingdom, women in construction management roles increased by 9% from 2018 to 2020. Women can bring a wide range of skills that would benefit organizations working in construction.

The History of Women in Construction

Elizabeth Wilbraham

Education for common women became mandatory in 1852 when Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school laws, followed in 1853 by New York, and in the United Kingdom in 1870 when all children between 5 and 12 were supposed to attend schooling. In 1918 all American children were required to attend at least elementary school.

Until then, only philanthropists like Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), supported poor children's education by building hundreds of schools.

Girls at the time were not suitable for education or physical activities. Only in 1850 an educationalist Frances Mary Buss (1827–1894) opened a secondary school for girls in London.

It took even longer for women to be able to attend university. Emily Davies (1830-1921) and Barbara Bodichon (1827–1891) pushed for women to be able to sit exams and gain degrees, they started a residential college for women at Cambridge University in the second half of the 19th century. England waited until 1948 to fully admit women into universities.

During the middle-age, women were working in the construction industry:

Women started working in the construction industry in Spain as early as the 13th Century.

At the time, women in Navarre were working as day laborers on wood and stone structures in the city.

From the 13th to 17th centuries, you could find skilled female construction laborers and tradespeople in France, England, and Germany. At the time employing women in construction was considered immoral. Female workers were considered socially unacceptable as they were considered physically unfit to carry heavy labor.

The only records we have of female laborers are anonymous. Historians found out that poor women employed as construction day laborers were a common practice in the past. They were carrying water, thatching roofs, and ditching foundations for walls.

Women in building trades were typically middle-class. They usually gained experience in carpentry, masonry, or similar techniques from their dads or husbands.

In the economic crises leading up to the Industrial Revolution in Europe, men were prioritized over women who were restricted from participating in the trade guilds, and the daughters and wives who were previously involved in the family business were dismissed.

Women in construction during the Industrial Revolution

As the industrial revolution expanded the labor market, women were invited back to construction sites, as tradespeople and laborers, and were no longer socially censured to work in the industry.

The situation changed when the troops returned, and women were fired from the jobs they held.

Dissatisfied with the overall injustice, women eventually started the feminist movement of the 1960s, fighting for equal rights.

Pioneering females in construction

Lady Anne Clifford

The first woman recorded in British history to lead building projects was Lady Anne Clifford. She erected the Countess Pillar in 1656 near Brougham, Cumbria, in memory of her late mother. She then restored churches at Appleby-in-Westmorland, Ninekirks, Brougham, and Mallerstang. Eventually, she improved and expanded many of the Clifford family's castles across Northern England.

Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham

Elizabeth was the first woman architect. She drew up her designs to build grand houses for her family. But she did not stop there as she was involved in up to 400 other buildings. To accomplish these phenomenal tasks she employed male architects to carry out her plans for her. Eighteen churches in London were attributed to Christopher Wren who probably was one of the male architects she used.

Ethel Charles

Ethel got admitted into the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), becoming the first woman to be accepted to the faculty in 1902. She was not given any commissions for big projects as they could only be controlled by men. Her accomplishments were to improve laborers’ cottages. She is now regarded as having significantly developed the old English style towards the garden city movement, a method of urban planning that surrounded communities with greenbelt land.

Her sister Bessie, was the second female member of RIBA and worked with Ethel all her professional life.

Emily Warren Roebling

Emily was one of the first woman engineers who directed the construction of the famous Brooklyn Bridge after her husband Washington Roebling got ill.

She was key to the project’s success, and as a gesture of appreciation, President Chester A. Arthur invited her to cross the full bridge’s length in 1883, when the bridge was officially opened.

Julia Morgan

Julia was the first to be admitted to one of the most prestigious architecture schools, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, in Paris and the first to become a licensed woman architect in California.

Men are behaving better toward women in construction

The labor shortage worldwide means more jobs for women. In 2023, industry leaders believe things are changing when it comes to gender and jobs.

Some women are still frustrated by men’s mentality

Most females employed in the industry are still experiencing discrimination, harassment, and improper remarks in their jobs.

Unfortunately, the mentality of older males is very hard to change, making it difficult for young women to be properly appreciated despite their good performance.

An office administrator for a General Contractor in North Carolina said:

There is the old-school mentality of some of our older subcontractors. Sometimes there are comments made about women or LGBTQ+ people that make me uncomfortable.

It is not all women that complain about this attitude. Many women prefer working in construction because of that aspect.

An accountant for a subcontractor in South Carolina said:

Women are multitasking-oriented, and men appreciate when I juggle a lot of tasks at once.

Women are needed in the construction industry

Experts predict that women could soon represent half of the newly recruited employees in every role: designers, architects, engineers, construction workers, etc.

Some promising news

According to a report from Women in Construction Week, the number of women holding jobs in construction is growing.

A recent Smart Asset study using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the industry is serving high salaries for women, $156,000 for the high-end construction manager, and $68,000 for laborers and painters.

The industry is one of the most gender-equality-supporting industries in terms of salary. Women earn about 95% of what their male counterparts earn.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says that construction employment had a strong bounce back after the COVID lockdowns and other restrictions. It started in the late spring of 2020 and has grown continuously since then. Employment in the industry passed pre-pandemic levels in January 2022. This is good news for women's employment in the industry.

Some adverse trends

Construction employment in the USA is projected to only grow 2.8% annually between now and 2031, compared to an average 5.3% rate of job growth across all industries. Unfortunately, women may have fewer opportunities to find a job in the sector.

The technological changes in the industry will automate processes so productivity will increase, and the need for laborers will decrease. The demand in industries depending on construction projects, like energy, may create jobs for women in some areas while reducing employment in others.

Challenges to overcome before attracting women into construction

Safety

The construction industry is a dangerous place for all employees, but more unsafe for women. Employers do not pay attention to the size and shape of safety equipment and provide PPE that is not fit for women.

Solution: To employ women, companies should provide the correct PPE. They should research PPE manufacturers and suppliers on hand, identify a wide selection of size ranges for PPE that have all sizes, including women, required in their companies, and ensure proper stock and direct accessibility, as required.

Patterns

Most people think that construction jobs require you to be in the field for the project’s success. This is a myth. Women will not have to go to the construction sites if they work as architects, designers, construction managers, etc., or if they use technology to reduce their journeys to the field.

Solution: break the pattern by changing women's perception of the wide range of skills and experience required to work in construction companies.

Discrimination

The industry is male-dominated, and a lot of older males are working there. Women may feel intimidated to work on construction sites dominated by that demographic. A Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors survey found that one-third of women interested in entering the construction industry did not do it for fear of sexism.

Solution: harassment should be punishable on the construction site irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

Issues are discounted

Ignoring the issues revealed in a study done by the Construction Industry Federation would prevent women from embracing careers in the construction industry. The report says that 65% of companies fail to attract qualified female graduates. Another 59% of companies have difficulties in hiring skilled female workers outside of the sector. An incredible percentage (60%) of the respondents failed to provide a flexible working environment for women. 52% of the interviewed companies admitted that they do not like assisting women who have taken a career break and want to return to work. Overall, only 30% believe that their company has to improve the gender balance.

Solution: Construction companies should realize that they must change if they want to hire more women.

In conclusion

The construction industry must make women's lives easier, so they can perform better, and become a bigger share of the workforce.

The future for women seems to be brilliant and will help reduce the labor shortage crisis that the industry is facing. Companies in construction are already taking steps towards improving gender equality in their workforce. A trend implies that in the next 10 years, there will be more women-owned construction companies.

Now is the time for women to enter the construction industry but the companies employing them still have a lot of work to do to attract them!

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