Though difficult for many in the industry, the current labor shortage in construction is driving some much-needed positive change - specifically, in areas of gender diversity.
Construction has long been a male-dominated field, but critical shortages of qualified laborers (compounded by both an increasing demand for workers, and the unprecedented wave of COVID-driven retirements in an aging workforce) are opening doorways for “the New Construction Woman” - a female workforce previously excluded from industry participation.
Recent publication of data recorded by the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics reflects staggering developments in recent months for women working in construction. With more than 440,000 unfilled positions hitting the industry in April of 2022 alone, the most recent data indicates the highest-ever percentage of women in the construction industry. Currently clocking at 14%, this record-breaking statistic represents a 1% increase in women employed in construction between February 2020 and May 2022.
Acceptance of women working in construction - especially in traditionally male-dominated roles - is critical to overcoming the challenges posed by a quickly constricting workforce. Still, while the numbers above represent incredible progress, it’s not all sunshine and roses.
A recent study by Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) reports that more than 50% of women employed in construction report unequal treatment by male coworkers as ‘frequent or constant’, with more than 25% experiencing ‘frequent or constant’ sexual and gender-based harassment. And an independent study of women working in construction-related roles in the UK found that 72% of the more than 4200 respondents reported experiencing gender discrimination.
These numbers are unacceptable - and they highlight a deep and critical need for renovation of industry attitudes towards diversity and inclusion. A recent Bloomberg article on women in construction neatly summarizes some of the challenges faced by female workers - while also, ironically, highlighting some undesirable stereotypes. While the piece is obviously well-intentioned, the opening paragraph quotes a female home builder as saying “To have a young, blond girl doing this throws everyone for a loop”, while other women employed in construction are quoted as touting a “thick skin” and an acceptance of “non-HR friendly” language as necessary to fulfilling their roles.
While female equity is accepted as a given in most other industries, building and development trades are obviously grading below the curve. With more than 1.1 million women employed in the construction industry as of April 2022, they are still outnumbered by men nearly 10 to 1 - and they are often restricted to working in office-based or administrative positions. In order to engage more qualified talent in this previously-untapped segment of the workforce - namely, fifty percent of the population - diversity and inclusion initiatives need to extend beyond the walls of the corporate office, and into the job site itself.
A shift in the industry-wide acceptance of women as valuable contributors needs to begin with equitable hiring and promotion practices. The lack of female leaders in construction organizations is noteworthy, and cited by many as an additional challenge. Outlining clear pathways for progression into senior positions will also help women in construction assume leadership roles, and provide aspirational models for the next generation of workers.
Conducting outreach to schools and recruiting events can help employers overcome negative stereotypes of construction as dirty and difficult work, while providing young candidates with valuable information on a wide range of construction-related career pathways and opportunities that may be less obvious to the uninitiated (for example, site inspection and planning, project surveying, equipment maintenance and operation, and AED roles). And, supporting and enforcing anti-harassment, equal pay, and non-discrimination initiatives is paramount to supporting wellbeing and encouraging longterm employment of female workers.
As a whole, the construction industry has a long way to go - but correction of the labor crisis requires employers to rise to the challenge of creating a positive place of employment for all laborers willing to join the workforce. Acceptance of women in construction significantly increases the hiring pool - and good faith investments in equity and inclusion will make an enormous difference in the lives of an up-and-coming workforce, while supporting your business’s continued success.