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Why are women in construction leaving their hard won jobs?

17 Jul 2018
Barbara Res

Ahead of her keynote discussion at UK Construction Week, Barbara Res, the woman behind Trump Tower, explains why women in the U.S. are turning their backs on construction, and what the industry can do to buck this alarming trend.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to men, women in the United States earn about 80 cents on the dollar. But in engineering, this percentage increases to 93%, and in construction trades, 97%. Women are finally getting into these lucrative fields and experiencing almost parity. So why do so many leave?

Looking first at engineers: 20% of engineering graduates are women. In 1970 that figure stood at 1%. That percentage rose over time with the number of women in the workforce growing dramatically, more women working in non-traditional professions e.g. lawyers and doctors. The 'women’s movement' had an impact. Slowly, participation increased, and then in 2000, the figure got stuck at 20% and remains so. The number of women employed as engineers in the workplace now stands at around 13%. This reflects alarming trends of women turning their backs on the industry, and not going into the profession once they graduate as engineers. (Note: there are fewer women working as 'engineers' in construction.)

Studies of STEM women leaving the field have been conducted to somewhat inconsistent conclusions. However, one thing is definite. Discrimination in the work place is a major cause of attrition for women. Women in college find that when working in teams or as interns, they are assigned ministerial tasks. They are evaluated and discussed on the basis of their looks and not performances. After school, the same trends continue. Many, if not most women, are subject to sexual harassment in some form. They do not get promotions or the same opportunities to advance like men do. They often find that they are being paid less than their male counterparts for identical work. They feel they are being constantly judged. They are often kept out of meetings and excluded from social interactions. They feel "left out".

Unfortunately, the habits of construction journey women are not studied in such depth. I have seen participation rates for women reported from 1.6% to 3.4%. This has not changed in 40 years. Most of the causes for quitting are anecdotal and not scientifically measurable. But taken in their entirety, the stories present some unified answers. The major factors include:

Maternity leave (only because it is non-existent in this field) - 5% of tradeswomen have company sponsored maternity leave

Sexual harassment and fear of harassment - 88% of tradeswomen say they have been harassed

Damage to Identity and self-esteem - reinforcement of stereotypes at work and in society in general, often women eternalize the notion that they are doing 'men’s work' and it begins to erode their identity

Lack of a female support system women often find they have no one to turn to that can relate to them. At work, they have no female friends and no female mentors. They feel lonely and that they don’t belong

Existence of a hostile work environment (comments, crude pictures, intimidation)

Although their work is very different, there are similarities between engineers and journeywomen. They all want to be valued and respected, and to make a contribution, they want to be encouraged in their efforts, they want to be treated equally and be given the same pay and the same opportunities as their male peers, they want to be able to work without being sexually harassed, they want to work in a non-hostile environment, they do not want to be made to feel they are “less of a woman” for doing “men’s work.

That is not what they are getting and that’s why they leave.

Companies want to stop the bleeding. No one can dispute that an employee leaving impacts on everything. Many of the reasons women quit relate to cultural attitudes and 'norms' which have to change and are, slowly. But in the meantime, there are lots of things that can be done:

Outreach to girls, get the numbers up and get more workers into the "pipeline" 

Get more women into unions

Affirmative steps, voluntary and mandatory minimums

Promote more women (and look outside the company to find experienced women)

Set up "programmes" for female employees to encourage camaraderie and mentorships

Punish sexual harassment - educational programmes show little effect, because if the rules are not enforced, they will not be followed. Taking claims seriously and taking real punitive actions against the harassers will act as a deterrent and that will be effective. (Note: this is especially important in construction where harassment is so prevalent and women underreport cases with more than half suffering repercussions) Recent developments in how businesses are treating on the job sexual harassment and assaults are very encouraging. Hopefully the change will find its way into the building industry. It appears that these successes are related directly to women in solidarity working to achieve a goal. Probably, the most important thing, is to get more women who will get more women.

For more on this topic, join Barbara Res at UK Construction Week on Wednesday 10 October, where she’ll discuss sexual harassment in construction, working alongside Donald Trump, and her experience as a female engineer with journalist and presenter, Steph McGovern. Spaces are limited. Reserve your seat and register for your FREE ticket now.

barbara res NEWRes rose to the top of the male dominated construction business in New York during the 1970s and 80s. Despite encountering sexual discrimination, harassment and intimidation, she became the first woman to take charge of the construction of a major skyscraper, the Trump Tower. Alongside her memoir, All Alone on the 68th Floor: How One Woman Changed the Face of Construction, Res has penned numerous op-ed pieces about women in construction and her philosophy on feminism.

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