The construction industry is one of the largest in the country, employing more than 11.2 million people in the United States alone. In spite of that massive population, nearly 90% of the industry is male. Why is there such a massive gender gap in the construction industry, and what can women do to make a name for themselves in such a competitive industry?
It’s a Man’s World
The construction industry, along with many other labor-focused industries, is facing a massive labor shortage. Companies are expected to need hundreds of thousands of skilled workers to meet the demands of the sector, and there simply aren’t enough workers to go around. Despite this need, construction is still very much an old boy’s game, with most of the industry’s workforce made up of older men.
This isn’t an exaggeration. As of 2018, workers over 55 accounted for 22% of the workforce, up from 17% in 2011. The number of middle-aged workers between 25 and 54 dropped from 75% to 69% in the same period. The youngest demographic, workers between 18 and 25, only accounts for 9% of the workforce.
The workforce is clearly getting older by the year. Members of the Baby Boomer generation started reaching retirement age in recent years, and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated early retirement for these venerable construction workers.
Too Tough for the Fairer Sex
One of the biggest arguments against women in the construction industry is that the work is too difficult for those of the fairer sex. Naysayers argue that women shouldn’t have to — or want to — get their hands dirty or work in such an industry.
In fact, many women are more than happy to throw a bag of cement over their shoulders and get to work, but that isn’t the only opportunity for women in the industry. Around 31% of women in construction work in construction management or other similar positions, while others work in welding, framing, carpentry, and other trades.
Construction managers, particularly those who specialize in risk management, are constantly in demand to help make construction sites safer — and you don’t need an “M” on your driver's license to assess workplace safety and ensure everyone is making the best choices while they’re on the clock.
It’s a Perception Game
There is a distinct lack of female role models in the construction industry which makes it difficult for young women who might be seeking someone to look up to when they’re making career decisions in high school. It’s all a perception game.
To the outside observer, the construction industry may look like a bunch of strong men lifting heavy things and constructing buildings with nothing more than the sweat of their brow and the hammer in their belt. The real picture is far more complex, and that’s where the perception game comes in.
The industry needs a renovation of its image from the ground up. It should be seen as the attractive career path that it is, for both genders, while shedding some of the less positive stereotypes it’s gathered across the years.
We also need to get away from the perception of digging ditches being the face of the industry. While these tasks all play a vital role, it ignores all of the engineers, architects, managers, and other craft professionals necessary to build a new structure from the ground up.
Changing the Playing Field
The construction industry might look like a difficult one to break into, but once you’ve got your toe in the door, it’s a lot more welcoming than it may look like from the outside. Unlike many other industries, the pay gap between men and women is tiny, with women making around 99.1% of what men in the sector make.
Simple steps, like using gender-neutral language for job advertisements, can make the industry seem a little more welcoming. We need to take steps to change the playing field. Right now, women in construction need to be willing to be as loud as — or in some cases louder than — anyone who tries to tell them they don’t belong.
Getting Into Construction
What steps can women take if they’re interested in pursuing a career in the construction industry?
Start as early as you can and work toward that goal. That means choosing courses and extracurriculars through high school that support your career choice. Then, once you’re ready to move into education, trade school, or apprenticeship, opt for programs that set you up to succeed in construction.
Positions in apprenticeship programs are highly coveted by both genders. Pre-apprenticeship programs can help, as can programs designed to help women secure apprenticeships in your chosen field.
Trade schools are also another option. Trade school programs help by providing both information and some hands-on experience.
Finally, be ready to raise your voice. You’ll need to be willing to speak up for yourself and your dream, but with perseverance and initiative, you can make a space for yourself in this rewarding industry.
Looking Toward the Future
Bringing women into the construction workforce, and making them welcome there, could play an enormous role in reducing the massive labor shortage that's threatening productivity throughout the industry.
Women have been making great strides in the industry as a whole, but for the moment, it’s still dominated by men. Until we’re willing to step up and make a change from the ground up, altering the industry’s image and the way it looks to outside observers, it will continue to be a challenge for women who want nothing more than to help build our world.