Women working in the construction industry is a problem. It also is an opportunity, and one that could turn into a blessing. It all depends on how the industry chooses to deal with it.
A woman working on a construction site is not exactly a new thing. After all, the National Association of Women in Construction has been around since 1953. The numbers of female construction employees in the U.S.—in field and offices—topped a million in 2005 but has dropped back to 800,000 or so thanks to an economy unfriendly to the industry as a whole.
But the percentage remains relatively small—9 percent in 2010. Reasons for the general under-employment of females are not difficult to understand. In the first place, dirty, loud, physically stressful work sites are not a natural draw to lots of people, male or female. There wouldn’t be a shortage of labor in the industry were that not the case.
Furthermore, blue-collar, male-dominated physical industries tend to be sexist and deliver sexual harassment, lewd conversation, and generally coarse behavior. None of that is excusable, but it is a reality. In addition, contractors with female laborers may have to provide redesigned and resized personal protective gear and cleaner and separate restrooms and changing rooms, develop new lifting regimens to accommodate women, and avoid assigning female employees to workplaces that pose reproductive risk.
It is enough to produce muttering along the lines of, “Hey, just stay in the office and leave us alone.” That attitude has no legs in 2014, however, even though the complications of opening the construction door wider to women is a headache no one really needs right now—except, that is, women, and an entire industry that is facing a shortfall of skilled workers in its future.
Suddenly, attracting more women into construction could be a previously unrecognized win-win. This is the right time to put on the thinking hardhats and turn the gender problem into a solution.