In December 2018, some unusual signs started popping up at certain construction sites around New York. The signs had the familiar orange diamond shape, but the words were slightly altered: “Men and Women at Work.”
Those eight additional letters communicate volumes.
They indicate women’s increasing prominence in the construction industry and the industry’s growing openness to women in the workforce. They indicate a dedication to diversity and inclusion, and a desire to communicate those values publicly.
“The intent was to make a subtle change to a traditional sign and create awareness in the process,” says Rosie Toscano, corporate compliance director at New York’s Plaza Construction and one of those responsible for the change in the signs. “The majority of responses have been quite favorable from workers, clients, and the public.”
The positive reception for the change reflects a slowly growing sensibility that women can be successful in construction and should be encouraged to explore this career path.
There’s something for everyone in construction
That message is making its way to potential female construction employees in a variety of ways. Two organizations dedicated to conveying the idea are Power Up, a nonprofit that educates girls about opportunities in the construction industry, and Crane Industry Services, a company focusing on training, compliance, and operations support for the construction industry. Both organizations help girls and women imagine themselves working in construction via virtual reality simulations of tasks like welding and operating heavy equipment.
It’s exposure like this—illustrating how strength is not a precondition of success in construction —that is partly responsible for moving the needle on the number of women employed in construction.
Women comprise 10% of the construction workforce, with the vast majority (87%) of those in office-based positions. However, their role is rapidly growing: It’s predicted that women will comprise as much as 25% of the industry by 2020. Women are also increasingly taking leadership roles in the industry. Among the 100 top contracting companies, 44% have women in executive positions, and 16% of them have women in the C-suite. Consider the story of Mindy Nunez Airhart, CEO of Southern Services & Equipment, whose steel fabrication company contributed to rebuilding the New Orleans skyline after Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s growing so much that there’s a lot of room for upward mobility,” says Samantha Vincenty, a project executive with Florida’s Marker Construction. “We have a lot of women getting into construction and a lot moving into management and higher up positions. There are a lot of women VPs, project execs, and project managers that are coming up.”
For Toscano, increasing women’s role in the industry is largely a matter of breaking down the general perception of construction as a male bastion where women won’t find a warm reception.
“I think construction-industry employers are quite welcoming to women,” she says. “I consider the lack of knowledge about the industry as a major contributing factor to the low female workforce. This is an exciting and rewarding industry with many positions available to women — careers exist not only in the trades, but also as project managers, superintendents, estimators, accountants in operations, risk management, human resources, marketing, etcetera.”
With so many possibilities for women in the field, companies have an enormous opportunity to diversify and enhance their workforces by aiming to get more women in the door.
What companies can do to attract more women workers
As Toscano emphasizes, many construction companies are far more receptive to women’s participation than some may assume. However, there are specific areas that businesses in the industry can improve their practices to ensure they’re as welcoming to women as possible.
Factors that can make construction-industry workplaces particularly attractive to women include:
- Opportunities for growth and development, including chances to engage with coworkers in welcoming environments.
- Fair wages; particularly wage equality with male counterparts.
- Separate bathroom facilities on job sites.
- Flexibility, such as flex time or alternative work arrangements to enable work-life balance.
- Maternity leave.
Opportunities for growth and development can include participation in associations that help women in the industry connect and support each other, such as:
- National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC)
- National Association of Professional Women in Construction
- Women Construction Owners & Executives USA
- Canadian Association of Women in Construction
But making mixed-gender associations, conferences, meetups, and other networking and career-development opportunities accommodating and welcoming to women is also essential to encourage their participation in the industry.
Fair pay is of course a priority for all workers, but companies should be cognizant that women on average across all industries earn 81.1 cents for every dollar a man earns. The good news is that the wage gap between male and female employees is already disproportionately low in construction; women in the industry make on average 95.7 percent of what men earn.
Women respond particularly well to flexible work arrangements, such as the ability to concentrate hours on certain days or the chance for office staff to work from home on occasion or on a regular schedule. The issues of how to manage maternity leave and childcare is a prominent concern for women, and construction companies that address those issues will be successful at attracting female workers.
“[Maternity leave] is a huge issue, not only in construction but across the board,” says Vincenty. “I think in construction we’re behind on some of that; we need to be changing the way we look at family leave and flexibility.”
Women are finding a good vocation in construction
Overall, the construction industry has a lot to offer women, much more than most people presume, says Toscano. She says female colleagues with whom she speaks appreciate “not only the pay scale and career opportunities but also the camaraderie with both male and female workers.”
On top of those factors, the work is varied and challenging, there is a wide variety of jobs to undertake, and the opportunities for advancement are robust. The vast majority of women in the industry work in sales, management, and other professional positions, usually in an office environment, but there are plenty of women who work as welders, pipefitters, equipment operators, and in other field-based occupations.
“Knowing what goes into a project, I have an enormous appreciation and respect for this industry,” says Toscano.
As more women discover that truth and more construction workplaces work to attract them, the industry will increasingly provide excellent workplaces for all workers as the gender diversity of the construction workforce continues to improve.