What is it like to be a woman in the construction industry? A new report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research has some answers.
In the largest survey to date of tradeswomen in the U.S., the IWPR asked 2,635 women and non-binary people what they think of working in the construction industry. The questions asked how they got into the field, what they like about it, and what challenges they face, including if they've ever considered leaving. The results show both positives and negatives.
"The report shows just how important and transformative a career in the trades can be, while also highlighting that workplace culture and practices need to change if the industry wants to attract and retain women," wrote the authors.
In 2020, more than 300,000 women — the largest number ever — worked in construction occupations, reflecting growth even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, women remain highly underrepresented, accounting for just 4% of all workers in the industry. Considering the pressing need for more skilled construction workers, this presents significant opportunity for growth.
Among the survey's findings are that, like a lot of tradespeople regardless of gender, the respondents like the work, as well as the pay — particularly if they're in a union. Union members tend to make more than their nonunion counterparts and also have more access to health care and better benefits like a pension.
According to the survey, seven in 10 union respondents, compared with just over half of nonunion respondents, said that their earnings were "very important." Furthermore, a national analysis of the full-time earnings of construction workers from 2016 to 2018 found that women construction workers not covered by a union contract earned 40.1% less than women who were covered by such a contract. For men, the corresponding gap was slightly smaller, at 34%.
The authors also noted that, of the individuals who answered the survey, 55% earned at least $50,000 per year in 2019, and almost three in 10 respondents earned at least $75,000. By comparison, the median annual earnings for all women in 2019 was just under $36,000.
Regarding the work experiences of tradeswomen and non-binary tradespeople, many report feeling respected and said that they enjoy what they do.
"I fell in love with it, seeing things go from one stage to another," said New Orleans Local 130 member Janelle DeJan on a webinar that accompanied the release of the report.
While that sentiment is shared by numerous tradeswomen, it's not always enough to keep them in the trades. More than four in 10 respondents say that they have seriously considered leaving the industry. For those individuals, discrimination or lack of respect is the most cited reason for wanting to leave, with 47.2% rating it as very important. Additionally, nearly four in 10 respondents say that they were driven out of the trades because the problems they raised were not taken seriously. And close to 50% say they are held to a higher standard than the men they work with, and sometimes contend with an unsupportive, if not hostile, work environment.
The survey also looked at parenting. While issues like finding childcare and pregnancy accommodations can pose very real problems, the study points out that, "the large percentage of mothers among respondents suggests that it is problematic to assume that just becoming a parent will cause women to leave the industry." In fact, the majority of those with children have not considered leaving.
Respondents also pointed to factors that help them succeed in the trades, including support from their union, which was described as "very important" by 45.9% of union members and as "important" by nearly 90%. Women's committees and tradeswomen's organizations, as well as participation in a women-focused pre-apprenticeship program, are just a few of the ways unions support women in their ranks.
Workplace procedures like anti-harassment policies were also identified as very important to success in the trades by more than four in 10 respondents, followed by having an employer committed to diversity goals and project owners with incentives or hiring goals for women.
"In our training we learn to select the best tool for the task at hand. The data from this survey will serve as a tool to help inform policymakers and leaders in their efforts to optimize available resources at the national, state and local levels," DeJan said.
The IBEW Strong initiative was launched in 2020 to focus on diversity, inclusion and equity, and aims to make the union a truly welcoming place for electrical workers of all genders, races and other differences.
"IBEW Strong is our way of saying there's a place for you with us," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "It doesn't matter who you are, just so long as you want to work hard."