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Construction: A Boys Club

For women in construction, the signs still say 'keep out' despite hiring guidelines.

Thu October 02, 2014 - National Edition
Barbara A. Res

Each month CEG is presenting a blog contributed by members of Professional Women in Construction (PWC). Founded in 1980, PWC is a nonprofit advocacy andsupport organization dedicated to the advancement of professional, managerial and entrepreneurial women in construction and related industries. PWC has chapters nationwide.

Harassment, intimidation and sabotage are a major reason why women do not enter or remain in jobs in the construction industry, according to a provocative and hard hitting study on women in construction by the National Women’s Law Center.

Women are openly discouraged from participating in the industry, and there is a dearth of opportunities. Discrimination is the order of the day. Jobs and union memberships are passed around to male friends, brothers and in-laws (women construction workers refer to the network as the "FBI"), and the few women who break through are met with hostility. Women in Construction Still Breaking Ground (June, 2014) reports a staggering 88 percent of women working in the construction trades have been harassed.

The number of women in the trades has remained at a dismal less than 3 percent for over 30 years. While women have made strides in other formerly male dominated fields such as law, medicine and law enforcement, construction has remained closed to women with unions regularly ignoring legally mandated apprenticeship diversity requirements with impunity. The excuse is that "women don’t want to do the work;" however, anecdotal evidence shows that the opportunities just aren’t there and women are regularly threatened and discouraged from applying. Many women working in low wage jobs are qualified and interested in the construction industry, but they have no way of getting in. A handful of groups that offer training produce small numbers of candidates who comprise the minuscule percentage of female workers on the job, but these women are few and far between, as are the non-profit volunteer groups that train them. There is no organized outreach to women, no enforced government mandates and no industry efforts to recruit women.

Even in the managerial areas of construction, women are severely under-represented. Fewer than 6 percent of construction managers are female, and only 12 percent of engineers are women. These women are not in the position in their companies to demand women workers in the field, they face the same obstacles and discrimination. The study finds that discrimination in education, especially in career and technical education and the STEM disciplines exacerbate the situation. Women are foreclosed from training programs in technical schools and colleges through systematic career discrimination in education.

This is the first study of its kind to lay the blame squarely on the men who work in and control the industry. Despite a 35-year-old executive order still in effect mandating that 6.9 percent of labor hours on federal projects be performed by women, the quota goes unmet without sanction or penalty. Construction companies do not seek out female employees to train because there is no impetus. Men are by and large opposed to female participation, and they make it known through threats and harassment.

There is a culture based on old stereotypes that women do not belong. Women who enter the field do so without support or mentors. There are very few organizations for women in construction. They are a lonely scattered group of women who operate below the radar. They have learned that it is best to lay low and keep quiet. They do not complain, and they do not organize. Much of the harassment goes unreported. Most of the women do not identify with feminism.

Neither National Organization for Women nor the Ms. Foundation for Women has taken up the mantle of the construction woman despite the fact that there is widespread discrimination resulting in economic harm to women, a cause that these organizations are built upon. Perhaps it is the fact that there is little hope for change and these women’s groups have to pick their spots. The plight of the construction woman goes without recognition or aid from the government, industry or advocacy.

The NWLC is the first to call for affirmative action to alleviate the situation. Affirmative Action has worked before with minority participation in the trades, and the situation resolved itself. Even a minor outreach effort by the unions would result in substantial numbers of female apprentices. The overwhelming control of an "old boys network" will not be ameliorated by anything short of quotas.

The women who work in construction hold their own with the men. They are widely reported to be reliable, hard working and focused. In most trades, the attrition rate for women is similar to that of males with the hostile environment being the main reason for quitting and not the fact that the work is too hard.

Construction is booming in the United States. Women deserve a chance to participate in this lucrative business. The government has the obligation to level the playing field and open the doors for women to enter the construction trades. The Law Center concludes that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission needs to start doing its job in enforcing laws already on the books and the states and the federal government need to enact hiring guidelines to ameliorate this injustice.

Barbara A. Res is a construction engineer and attorney and the author of the book: All Alone on the 68th Floor: How One Woman Changed the Face of Construction. Her email is [email protected]

This article originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun on July 13, 2014.

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