(Washington, D.C.) Women represent nearly half of the labor force, but hold only 2.6 percent of construction jobs, according to a comprehensive report released today by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). The miniscule share of women in construction, a relatively highly paid industry, has barely budged in the past 35 years and is due in large part to the discrimination that blocks women from entering and staying in this nontraditional field. There are more than 7,600,000 male construction workers in the U.S. but only about 206,000 women. In sharp contrast, the share of women in many other male-dominated jobs — such as correctional officers and firefighters — has grown dramatically during this same period.
Women in Construction: Still Breaking Ground examines the data on women’s participation in construction and how sexual harassment, gender stereotypes and lack of training drive the low percentage of women in the industry and offers practical solutions to increase their opportunities to enter the field. A U.S. Department of Labor study reported that 88 percent of women construction workers experienced sexual harassment on the job. Patricia Valoy of New York City quit her construction apprenticeship after facing constant harassment by coworkers. “Men would stop their work to stare and wolf whistle,” she said. “On a few occasions I got called a ‘bitch’ for refusing to reply to inappropriate remarks. Some men felt the need to give me ‘how to get fit’ advice and make comments about my body. Once I was alone in the middle of a storage room when a construction worker blocked the doorway and refused to let me leave unless I accepted his request for a date. I worked on the site for a year until the stress of constantly being harassed, belittled and intimidated was not worth the effort.”
Gender stereotypes that start in school and continue into employment restrict the numbers of women in nontraditional careers and keep women disproportionately clustered in jobs with lower pay and fewer benefits. Data show that women are rarely in the information pipeline to hear about construction apprenticeship opportunities. And when women participate in construction apprenticeships, they are less likely to complete their apprenticeships than men due to pervasive harassment, among other hurdles. Between 2006 and 2007, 51 percent of women left apprenticeship programs.
“It’s not surprising that the construction trades are sometimes called ‘the industry that time forgot,’ said NWLC Vice-President for Education and Employment Fatima Goss Graves. “Thousands of women are already proving their mettle on construction sites across the country. But many of these high paid jobs remain out of reach for women. And for the few who do get hired, their careers are often short-lived as a result of widespread sexual harassment. It’s time for this industry to enter the modern era — to expand apprenticeships and training opportunities for women, hire qualified female workers and enforce a zero tolerance policy against sexual harassment. This would be a win-win strategy for the industry — and for women.”
The report highlights the economic consequences of lack of access to a field that typically offers women an opportunity to earn higher wages. The median hourly wage for construction occupations was $19.55 in 2013, which is roughly double the median hourly wage for female-dominated occupations such as home health aides, maids, housekeepers and child care workers. Thirty-five years after the federal government created diversity goals, women are still extremely underrepresented in construction jobs.
The report highlights several recommendations aimed at federal policymakers to increase women’s participation in the construction field, including:
- The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which oversees one-fifth of the civilian workforce, should strengthen its oversight of contractors and requirements to recruit and increase access for women in construction;
- The Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship, which registers apprenticeship programs in all 50 states, should revise its affirmative action regulations to increase the numbers of women and minorities in these programs;
- The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal laws that prohibit discrimination against job applicants and employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability and genetic information, should increase its enforcement of sexual harassment protections.