During the National Association of Women in Construction’s “Women in Construction (WIC) Week,”
RedVector | Convergence paused to celebrate the growing role of women in the industry.
Our colleagues at Convergence Training spoke with Hannah Curtis, a Research Coordinator with the University of Washington School of Public Health, to examine both the positive and negative things women face in construction trade roles. Hannah also provides resources and tips for how to make construction workplaces safer, healthier places for women.
First, Hannah spoke about a study that she managed called SHEWT, Safety and Health Empowerment for Women in Trades.
“We started out by doing focus groups with women and men to talk about their exposure to physical- and stress-related hazards on the job, and then we used the themes that we pulled from those focus groups to develop a survey to more thoroughly assess workers’ exposure to physical- and stress-related outcomes,” she said. “We surveyed about 300 workers throughout Washington State, women and men from a variety of different construction trades, and then building off of that, we developed a pilot mentoring program to try to address some stressors that were identified in the research.
Our study focused on the various occupations that are actually out in the field, so you’re not working in an office or doing management work. This is being a carpenter, an ironworker, a laborer, an electrician, pipe trades, sheet metal, cement masons–there’s a wide variety of trades, but these are people who are actually out there doing the building work.”
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“For the women in our study, there were a lot of advantages that they talked about, and they really loved the work they were doing, both because of the financial benefits and also the psychological benefits that it offered them. Construction has one of the lowest gender pay-gaps in all industries, meaning that women early roughly, but not quite, 1:1, the same as men for the same work. I think it’s about 96% in construction, which is a lot higher than other industries. Construction workers also make a really high hourly wage, which is great for women. Workers also talked about getting insurance and retirement benefits for themselves and their families.
And then in terms of the psychological benefits, there’s a real pride in your craft, working with your hands and seeing the tangible results of your labor, getting to say to your children, “Hey, I made that for the community, it’s going to be there forever.” That’s something that the women were really proud of.
Most construction workers also go through training where they’re actually paid to go to school, which is really exciting–you don’t have to take out a lot of student loans to do this kind of work.
Also, you develop life-long skills that you can take with you anywhere, you can get trained to be a carpenter and you can work anywhere in the country really.
Women also really enjoyed the physical challenge of the work itself, getting to work outside, not being stuck inside an office building. So there are a lot of real benefits for women doing this type of work.”
“I think under-representation is really the biggest challenge for women. You’re probably aware that construction is a heavily male-dominated industry–nationally only about 3% of skilled trade workers are women. And it’s been this way pretty much since women started entering the trades en masse in the 1970s, and this is despite the best efforts of affirmative action, anti-discrimination, priority-hiring initiatives.
And so part of what we see is that women have much lower rates of entry into apprenticeship programs, which, like I said, are the main pipeline into the skill trades for a lot of workers. 2.5% of apprentices nationally are women.
And a lot of women just don’t even know that construction is an option for them; they’re not taught about it when they’re going to school. When they’re growing up they don’t get that same exposure to using their hands a lot of the time.
And then even once women are in apprenticeship programs, they have higher attrition rates compared to men. For women, the retention rate is less than 50%–it’s pretty low for a lot of workers, but for women, it’s particularly low. And what we’ve learned is that a lot of this is due to a lack of familiarity with using the tools of the trade, lack of familiarity with the culture, some culture shock when you get into it, a harder time securing on-the-job training, because of a lack of connections. And then also for a lot of women, challenges dealing with the work schedule, particularly if they’re raising children, and also just experiencing a hostile work environment. These are reasons why a lot of women are not able to complete their apprenticeship programs.”
In addition, Personal Protective Equipment was a challenge.
“PPE are things like boots, gloves, and fall harnesses. If these aren’t designed to fit women’s bodies, they’re actually going to put them at greater risk. A lot of women talked about not even using gloves because they just didn’t fit and they got in the way of what they were trying to do, and so that put them at higher risk as well.
More than 1/3 of the women we surveyed reported high levels of isolation, bullying, and overcompensation—physically pushing your body too hard—so this is something that a lot of women are thinking about. About half of women also reported having poor work/life balance, and childcare kept coming up as one of the main barriers for women being able to stay in the trades. The fact that even if they were working full-time, if they had a partner also working full-time, it was seen as the woman’s duty to take care of the kid. If their kid was sick they would still get that call, and a lot of times coworkers and their supervisors would not support them or would even threaten to lay them off for missing work.”
“So what are some solutions to reduce the risks that women are experiencing? A lot of it came back to trying to increase representation, to reduce that gender balance. So if you can get more women into the trades, if you can get more women into leadership positions especially, you can create more of a demand for PPE, you can make men more comfortable working with women, you can change the training so it’s more friendly for women’s ergonomics, just change the culture so it’s more supportive of women in general.
The Center for Construction Research and Training recently created a resource list for commercially available PPE specifically for women. And it’s not all pink, because that’s often the way that companies work, they just make something pink and suddenly it’s for women, and they slap a higher price tag on it. But no, PPE that is actually built for women’s bodies.
Pre-apprenticeship programs are a great resource. These are training programs that give women and men the beginner trade skills; they orient you to the trades culture, they teach you about the different types of trades, they get you up to date with all the pre-reqs you need, like math skills, and so they can be a really great way to learn about the trades. In Washington State, we have a program called ANEW (Apprenticeship in Non-Traditional Employment for Women), which is a wonderful program that has graduated so many women into apprenticeship programs, where they’re able to succeed.
There’s also an organization and a Facebook group called Pride and a Paycheck, which is for current trades women and also women looking to get into the trades. Again, this idea of networking and getting to share experiences and develop some bonding, which I think is really essential for women.