The National Association for Women in Construction (NAWIC) has been celebrating women in the construction industry for 24 years. Their annual Women in Construction (WIC) Week is this week, March 6-12, and is a time dedicated to reflecting on the contributions that women bring to the industry. This time is also used to recognize the avenues that exist for growing women’s representation on construction sites and within the industry as a whole. At Perlo, we support NAWIC and are proud of our strong foundation of women. We have seen more women than ever before recognized for their efforts in making the industry a more diverse and inclusive workplace.
To consider the topic of women in construction, we sat down with many of our team members at Perlo – both men and women – to discuss further. We had brutally honest and open conversations, asking questions such as:
- What do women bring to the table that men maybe don’t?
- Do you see challenges for women in this industry?
- What unconscious biases still exist between men and women?
- Do you get tired of this discussion?
- How did you get started in the industry?
- What biases do you hold against the opposite gender from you?
Starting the Conversation
Our conversations were, all at once, fun, serious, contemplative, reflective and educational. The fact that our culture at Perlo allows us to dig in to these types of conversations is just one reason why women are rising to the ranks of leadership, and that individuals like Todd Duwe, Vice President of Business Development, and Elissa Looney, Director of Strategic Initiatives, have both earned recognition as honorees of the DJC’s Building Diversity Awards for their advocacy for diversity in the workplace.
We also recognize that these conversations take time, sensitivity, open dialogue and acceptance of all perspectives. After all, inclusivity is at the heart of guiding diversity, equity, and inclusion, which includes being open to all varying perspectives. In the last few years, these conversations and the focus on these topics has increased in all industries, including the A/E/C industries.
Where diversity is concerned, the building industry is lacking. For instance, women make up only 10.9% of people working in construction, and only 2.5% of tradespeople.
Bias in the Construction Industry
“Unconscious bias is a social stereotype someone automatically forms about a person or group of people.”
This type of bias exists in every individual’s life – it is not inherently ”bad” to have biases, as its purpose includes the need to assess situations quickly to decide whether those situations are safe or not. Bias can be a matter of life or death, and aids in recognizing that a situation or individual is unsafe so that you can defend yourself, flee or freeze.
In short, unconscious bias is a normal part of human behavior, and we all have biases based on our past experiences and life influences like culture, media, parenting, etc. However, in the workplace, bias can show up in a negative way if they unduly influence decisions about hiring, pay, treatment or promotions. Some common workplace biases include:
- Gender bias: when conclusions are made based on gender.
- Beauty bias: when conclusions are made based on appearance.
- Conformity bias: when opinions or conclusions are made in order to ”go with the flow” and avoid being singled out.
- Affinity bias: when an individual favors another because they’re very similar or have similar experiences.
- Confirmation bias: when an individual forms an opinion and looks only for evidence that confirms that opinion, instead of remaining open to all evidence.
Unconscious bias is the opposite of explicit bias, where an individual deliberately or willfully discriminates against others. Explicit bias is easier to identify and is generally not accepted in society.
Why Unconscious Bias Matters to the Conversation about Women in Construction
We talked to our teams about what biases they experienced within themselves, or heard others say. Some of them included:
“Women are dramatic. They cry a lot.”
“Women don’t know what it’s like to build because they haven’t been in the trenches doing the work.”
“If you’re a mom, you won’t be able to work enough hours for this job.”
“The men don’t think we belong out there.”
And not all of these were about women. Some admitted to biases against men and different generations. Like:
“Younger generations are weak. They don’t know how to work hard.”
“Men aren’t sensitive. They aren’t good at managing people because they don’t have any empathy.”
“Men just want to play golf and drink beer.”
It’s natural for individuals to let bias enter their decision making when it comes to hiring, promoting or even mentoring someone of the opposite sex. We want to be clear when we say: this isn’t the fault of anyone. It’s natural. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t work to acknowledge these biases and take strides to eliminate them so that women and diverse populations have the same opportunity to excel in this industry. It’s also worth noting that eliminating bias isn’t only a task for men. As we can see from some of the comments listed above, bias goes both ways, and reducing its negative effects benefits everyone.
How do we encourage women to join the industry?
Research has demonstrated time and again that diversifying companies makes for stronger company performance, stronger communities and a more equitable population. Diversification of ethnicity and gender are important, and though we are focusing today’s article on gender, it’s not our intent to ignore the importance of ethnic diversity and the work needed to pursue ethnic diversification within our industry, as well.
So, how do we encourage women to join the construction industry? To answer this question, we have to start by acknowledging where the pool of candidates that construction companies are hiring from is originating. Overwhelmingly, they came because they had friends or family in the industry. Some came through temp employment agencies, but none of the women intentionally went into construction.
Here are some of their comments:
“I thought I was interviewing for a medical office position! But 25 years later, I’m still here!”
“I was introduced because my husband was in the industry.”
“My dad encouraged me to go into project management. I got a business degree.”
“Long story… but a friend of mine suggested I go into the trades. My plan was to journey out as a carpenter and then leave the continent, but I’m still here and love what I do.”
“Going into construction was a resounding ‘no’ from me. My father was in construction, and my work was supposed to be a summer job only. But 21 years later, I’m still here. I started in the field as a laborer, eventually went into an office manager position, then continued my journey into different positions.”
In terms of schooling for management roles, this report titled Engineering by the Numbers by Joseph Roy, Ph.D., sheds some light on the statistics regarding gender and diversity in engineering degrees. Although this report focuses on all types of engineering, it seems to align with the reality of the candidate pools that construction firms have to choose from if they’re following a ”traditional” model of hiring candidates with engineering degrees to complete their project management work. Taken from this report, the following graphic paints a clear picture of the ethnicities and gender of engineering degrees awarded as of 2018:
One of the reasons that construction companies are overwhelmingly male is the lack of candidates from diverse backgrounds receiving engineering degrees. Aside from ensuring that the construction community creates and maintains an inclusive environment that welcomes all ethnicities and genders, we must find a way to encourage a more diverse population of young people to pursue engineering as a field of study.
A variety of organizations are working hard to encourage young women to pursue an education in STEM fields and the building trades. Some of these organizations include:
It’s also up to individual companies to work to recruit and encourage youth in their local areas to explore construction careers.
The topic of women in construction, diversity, equity and inclusion in the construction industry is a large, complicated topic, and won’t be solved quickly. That said, it requires taking the first step to recognize that increasing diversity means raising awareness about bias, working to increase the inclusivity of the construction environment, and increasing interest from diverse youth populations in the industry. Importantly, it’s critical that we avoid blaming those who are already in the industry for the lack of diversity that is present. Let’s start from where we are now, build awareness, and take action.
To the women who are in construction already? Keep showing up and keep championing other women.