Editor's Note: This piece was written by Vicki O’Leary, who was appointed chair of the North American Building Trades Union (NABTU) Tradeswomen's Committee after joining the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers Union in 2016. She is a 32-year ironworker member from Local 1 in Chicago. She has bachelor's and master's degrees in labor and leadership.
It’s a time to celebrate the progress we have made in women’s rights, but also time for reflection. We ought to stop and look back at the progress we have made or the lack there of. In many areas we have made progress, but in many others, progress is rather illusive. Women are viewed as equal bread winners and they hold key positions in many industries. Does it mean that we have achieved gender equality?
Let’s turn to the construction industry. Despite the progress we have seen in the societal acceptance of women as equal breadwinners, capable leaders and successful entrepreneurs, in many industries such progress is less prevalent than others. The construction industry has a long history of sexism and discrimination against tradeswomen. In some cases, such treatment ended in tragedy, such the fate of carpenter apprentice Outi Hicks, who was killed on the jobsite by a co-worker.
An uphill battle
In the 21st century, it is shocking that women in the construction industry still face an uphill battle when it comes to advancement. But when you consider the root causes and statistics, it’s not such a shock.
Almost a third of women working in construction fear sexism will hold them back from the industry’s top jobs, a recent study by Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) found last year. The construction trades have long been among the industries with the lowest percentage of gender diversity in the workforce. Women represent only 9 percent of the overall construction workforce and 3 percent of the building trades.
Why does it matter? The construction industry is experiencing a dire skilled labor shortage and women make up half of the population and workforce. It’s intuitive to conclude that a large part of the solution to the skilled labor shortage is in the hands of the untapped talent — we need more tradeswomen! It’s that simple. If the construction industry doesn’t act promptly to address and mitigate sexism and breakdown gender bias, it wouldn’t just be hindering progress in closing the gender gap, but also the skilled labor gap.
It is true that we must address gender bias and sexism in the construction industry. But is it sufficient just advocating for gender diversity to be addressed? To create a diverse and inclusive culture and eliminate long-standing gender bias, we must advocate for diversity to be embedded into business strategy. It goes beyond proving adequate restroom facilities for tradeswomen and personal protective gear in smaller sizes.
Steps toward progress
Some building trades are beginning to make significant progress using both approaches. Tradeswomen and their allies, with the support of their leadership, are making headway in eliminating gender bias and turning hostile work environments into fostering work conditions for tradeswomen.
The Iron Workers International Union (IW) made headlines in the news with the announcement of its groundbreaking paid maternity leave last year with six months of pre-delivery and six to eight weeks of postpartum benefit for qualified ironworker women. Paid maternity leave is virtually unheard of in the construction industry. The leadership hopes the initiative will boost recruitment and retention of ironworker women.
As an ironworker and tradeswoman, it makes me incredibly happy to know that the building trades are leading the way in making diversity a priority. We have a better chance of closing the gender and skills gaps by incorporating diversity into the business strategy.
With the paid maternity benefit, the IW rolled out its “Be That One Guy” campaign, which challenges sexism in the construction industry. It is intended for curtailing the workplace bullying, hazing, sexual harassment and discrimination tradeswomen face. The campaign seeks to educate and raise awareness and using tools such as “bystander training” and dedicated town halls, address the root causes and create strategies to mitigate the problem.
It calls on the tradesmen to be advocates for their female counterparts — be a voice for justice when they see their sisters being mistreated due to gender bias and sexism. The campaign will serve as a model applicable across the building trades and hopefully, become a catalyst for change in the construction industry in general.
Closing the gender gap
It’s time to address the elephant in the room. We can’t close the skills gap without closing the gender gap in the construction industry. More organizations and companies in the industry, including contractors, building trades and end users, must incorporate diversity into business strategy and company culture.
There’s certainly a co-relation between harassment tradeswomen face on the job and the concept of “manly jobs." I have experienced it firsthand. It starts with parents only allowing girls to play with dolls and boys to play with cars or encouraging girls to “grow up to be a wife and mom” while allowing boys to explore options other than just being a dad or husband. It starts with career stereotyping — expecting women to be teachers, nurses and secretaries.
Gender stereotypes also frequently play into how students are exposed to career options in middle and high school. Such career stereotyping has led building trades and construction industry careers to be considered “manly jobs” and created barriers for women entering the field. The idea of leadership in the industry is connected to “toughness” that is associated with physical strength and spatial problem-solving.
Tradeswomen are constantly challenged and tested to ensure that they can “handle the manly job.” The idea of manly jobs is the root cause of sexism and discrimination tradeswomen have faced for decades. It is the barrier to increasing diversity in the industry. It is the reason why women represent just 3 percent of the building trades.
The future of the construction industry depends on increasing diversity. It depends on campaigns to raise awareness and incorporating diversity into business strategy.