It’s a man’s world — and by “it,” we mean the construction industry.
Commercial real estate, not to mention corporate America, has historically been dominated by men. Within this already masculine-powered framework, the construction industry has trended similarly, if not worse, for years.
“When we look at the total number of women in construction, it hovered between 9 and 10 percent for 25 years,” said Sasha Reed, director of industry advancement at construction software company Procore.
Women comprise roughly 50 percent of the workforce, yet they remain underrepresented in all facets of construction, which is splintered into two tiers: office employees, and tradespeople who work with tools in the field.
In 2021, women accounted for only 3.9 percent of construction’s tradespeople — an increase from years prior, according to data published by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Between 2016 and 2021, the number of tradeswomen increased 32.1 percent; last year saw approximately 314,000 tradeswomen working in construction.
On the office side of the industry, 8.6 percent of construction managers in 2021 were women. This number equates to a 43 percent increase over five years. In total, women accounted for only 11 percent of the construction industry last year.
Both the office and labor ends of construction draw similarities; women face unconscious biases and overarching prejudices throughout the industry, said Reed. However, working with tools results in a vastly different experience than working at a desk.
“I wouldn’t shy away from the fact that the culture of the field is very different [from] the culture of the office,” said Reed. “There is a higher opportunity for abuse and for harassment, without the built-in protections that a woman, potentially, in the office would have.”
Construction’s aggressive, physically dangerous and often hostile environment is the biggest barrier to women getting involved in the field, Reed added.
Yet the tides — and the tools — may be turning. In Oct., The U.S. Department of Commerce announced the Million Women in Construction initiative: a government effort to increase the number of women in construction. Over the next 10 years, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo hopes to double the number of women in the field, adding another million women to the workforce.
“There’s no way the Department of Commerce is investing billions of taxpayer dollars in brand-new infrastructure projects and not having those jobs go to people who look like all of America,” Secretary Raimondo said in late October at the North America’s Building Trades Union’s 2022 conference titled Tradeswomen Build Nations.
Recent data, as well as trends in the built environment, suggests progress is already underway. Take Hollywood, Fla.’s guitar-shaped Hard Rock Hotel, for instance, which was managed by Jessica Chen, a project executive at Suffolk,. Women made up 30 percent of the workforce on that project.
Meanwhile, a November article from The Washington Post analyzed findings from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The report highlighted a positive trend for tradeswomen, particularly Hispanic women, in construction.
Over the last six years, the number of Hispanic women in construction increased by 117 percent, and their numbers rose mostly in the field rather than the office. The reasons behind this surge are complex and layered, though a few driving forces correlate with the ongoing change.
For starters, the relationships between Hispanic men and Hispanic women created a network that ushered new, female labor into the industry. In 2020, 30 percent of total construction workers were Hispanic, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While that statistic isn’t gender-specific, the high concentration of Hispanic men in construction is more prevalent than any other demographic in any other industry, according to The Washington Post. Meaning, Hispanic men in construction outweigh Asian men in financial, professional and technical fields; Black men in transportation and warehousing; and white women in education Across the United States, roughly one in every five employed Hispanic men works in construction.
Hispanic women therefore have greater exposure — and access — to friends and relatives in the industry. This proximity ultimately results in easier entrance and exemplifies one potential strategy for the industry to diversify.
Networks can be leveraged as tools to further increase the number of women in construction, said Reed. If every male field worker recruited a woman in his social or familial spheres, the culture of the industry could possibly, and rapidly, change. Construction could become all the more accessible, not to mention safer and kinder, to women.
In addition to networking, Reed highlighted the aging out of superintendents, laborers and other industry mainstays as another contributor to construction’s shifting demographics. Fewer men are entering the field, she said.
Yet just because more women are beginning to don hard hats doesn’t mean that there’s many — or that they’ll stay. On average, women remain in construction firms for roughly 10 years, said Reed, with the caveat that there’s an overall deficit of data and research on retention.
In general, women and minorities leave the construction industry because of a lack of career development, career growth and opportunities, said Reed.
Women also leave to start families. With so few women in the industry, women in construction have historically lacked a network of other women. They’ve therefore had to tackle the intricacies of the industry without sufficient road maps, support systems and examples of what it looks like to balance motherhood with a career.
Over the last few years, however, labor unions and associations have gradually begun to address these limitations. The Iron Workers Union, for example, created a paid maternity leave program in 2017, easing options for women to maintain a construction career and a family.
As women in construction increasingly advance to leadership roles, maternity policies and corresponding changes have proven easier to enact, said Reed; women are more inclined to understand, accommodate and drive policies that help other women.
Technology has also contributed to the changes in construction, as the pandemic disrupted the industry’s status quo. Of course, no discussion of change in real estate is truly complete without a nod to 2020’s impact; COVID-19 created more opportunities for digital workers and made remote and hybrid jobs the norm rather than outliers.
The ensuing flexibility ultimately allowed for more accessibility in an industry that’s long resisted change.
“I think the implementation of more online tools into the pre-construction and construction [industries] can make it more equal,” said Yuri Galeev, CEO of pre-construction proptech company Constructo.
Online tools like 3D scanners and digital twins allow employees to complete various pre-construction roles without the need to inhabit a physical job site. These tools level the playing field, allowing people to work together on a merit basis, said Galeev. Digitizing elements of construction increases access; anyone, including women, can work from a place of convenience, rather than heading to a job site.
“Technology enables the business to shift and transform where it’s no longer as much about geo-location as it is the right information in the right format at the time it’s needed for the individual,” said Reed.
Less onsite work not only eases women’s physical access to jobs but also eases their experiences. By working through technology, employees may endure fewer stereotypical considerations based on gender, race, age and level of experience, said Galeev.
“I see technology as the great equalizer,” said Reed.
Anna Staropoli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.