Women Pave the Way in Construction Industry
By Nikki Johnson, Contributor
- 9% women reported in 2022
- 44% are in construction management
- 13% own a construction-related company
Who Are the Trailblazers?
With women entering the construction field at increasing rates, who do we have to thank for paving the way?
- Emily Roebling—One of the first documented women in construction, Roebling paved the way for women in various sectors of the industry. When her husband fell ill, she replaced him as chief engineer and oversaw the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge.
- Julia Morgan—Morgan gained her Civil Engineering degree in California in 1898 and became the first licensed architect in the state. She was both designer and construction supervisor for the Hearst Castle.
- Elsie Eaves—In 1927, Eaves became the first woman inducted into the American Society of Civil Engineers. Her database invention had a significant impact on how residential and commercial building projects operate today.
Alongside these pioneers stand an increasing number of woman-owned businesses. The following are among the most well-known in the industry today:
- Kathryne Cahill Thompson, Cahill Contractors—Cahill Thompson joined this family-run company as a project engineer in 2007 before later becoming CEO in 2016. She is currently the highest-earning woman-owned construction company in the Bay area.
- Jennifer Todd, LMS General Contractors—Founder and President of LMS General Contractors, Todd is the youngest black woman to receive a General Engineering license in the state of California. She was also the first black construction business owner to be featured on the cover of Construction Business Owner magazine in 2020.
- Marilyn Grabowski, Atlantic Infra—Grabowski is known as the go-to partner of New Jersey’s utility companies. Her company is the largest and most experienced infrared contractor in the world.
Challenges Women Face in Construction Industry
In 1953, the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) was founded in response to a lack of representation in the construction industry. The founders sought to create a community for women to network as well as gain professional development skills, education, and leadership training.
NAWIC hosted its annual Women in Construction Week March 5-11. During this week, the history of women in construction was discussed, along with the challenges they faced in the workforce.
Today, the most common challenges women encounter in the industry concern Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), sexual harassment, training, and designated bathrooms.
PPE Doesn’t Fit
Women are at a higher risk of workplace injury due to poorly-fitted PPE. When equipment does not fit properly, it can cause safety hazards such as:
- Loose material snagging on machinery
- Gloves causing the wearer to drop or mishandle materials
- Footwear causing blisters
According to OSHA’s best practices, employers should not only maintain a list of manufacturers and suppliers that provide items in size ranges suitable for women, but ensure their accessibility at the workplace. The following is a list of companies that provide PPE for women:
- 3M Occupational Health and Environmental Safety
- Gateway Safety, Inc.
- Safety Girl
In 2023, sexual harassment is still a workplace problem for women. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), construction has the second-highest reports of sexual harassment incidents in the trade industry.
- 88% of women reported incidents of sexual harassment
- 66% of women in male-dominated industries reported being sexually harassed in 2018
- 43% sexually harassed by supervisors
Many tradeswomen report that the work culture does not leave room for training or education because employers emphasize productivity over safety. According to a study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), women reported:
- 31% have been assigned a task where they are unsure how to proceed
- 39% wish they were trained better before entering a work site
- 78% expressed concerns over male coworkers’ lack of participation in training
While on-site, many facilities have unisex porta-potties, which means women often share porta-potties with men while they work on construction projects.
Due to the lack of cleanliness, women often claim to avoid drinking water, so they do not have to use the facilities. Not using the restroom when you must go can create more problems than lack of convenience. Due to a lack of clean facilities, women are at a higher risk of:
- Urinary tract infections
- Bladder infections
- Kidney stones
OSHA requires employers to provide access to sanitary facilities for all personnel and ensure that they are in clean and sanitary condition.
What Can We Do?
According to Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), the construction industry will need to attract an estimated 546,000 additional workers on top of the normal pace of hiring in 2023 to meet demand for labor. In order to recruit more women (who consume 46.8% of the total labor force), the industry needs a greater emphasis on diversity, training, mentorship, and education.
In doing so, solutions such as the following will help not only to attract more women into the construction industry, but to retain them.
- Encourage Training—Employers and unions should make skills training courses available and encourage all workers to take advantage of them.
- Change Workplace Culture—Employers, unions, and apprenticeship programs should provide training and guidelines on the safety, health, and equal treatment of all workers, members, or trainees to their supervisory personnel, teachers, and representatives.
- Design PPE for Women—Manufacturers of PPE and PPC should be encouraged by the construction industry to collect information on all sizes and use it to expand the range of sizes offered in both clothing and equipment.
- Provide Gender-Specific Restrooms—Where change rooms are provided on construction sites, they should also be gender separated and equipped with inside and outside locking mechanisms.
- Establish Mentorships—Journeymen should establish mentoring relationships with new workers to provide informal skills and safety training.
OSHA requires employers to provide workers with safe working conditions, which includes addressing toxic work culture and providing training that educates workers in how to execute projects in the most ethical ways possible.
Nikki Johnson is a Safety Professional, Graphic Products (graphicproducts.com).
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