A lot has changed in the last three decades: everyone is on the Internet, we all carry around high-speed computers in our pockets, and tapes and CDs are virtually non-existent. Yet, the plight of female construction workers remains the same. In the ‘80s, about three percent of construction workers in the United States were women. Today, whether they are building condos in the suburbs or high-rise downtown hotels, construction crews are still about three percent female according to a recent report from the National Women’s Law Center.
Why is that? What can we do to make construction a more female-friendly trade? And, as a real estate mogul, President Trump must be well aware of the issues facing female construction workers. What should he do about the issues these women are facing?
Problems Women in Construction Face
Discrimination – beginning in education programs and continuing all the way up the employment chain – is the main reason for the low percentage of women in the construction industry. Instead of being encouraged to enter traditionally male programs like construction, young women are often explicitly steered or at least subtly encouraged to work in occupations that align with traditional gender stereotypes in career and technical education (CTE) programs.
Once they get through their (CTE) programs, women next face discrimination as they try to join apprenticeship programs, which are run like “old boys’ clubs” that operate to exclude women and minorities. Research shows that women leave these apprenticeship programs at higher rates than men because of sexual harassment, lack of child care, and hostile work environments.
Once women clear the hurdles of education and apprenticeship, 88 percent of female construction workers experience sexual harassment at work according to a study by the U.S. Department of Labor. This is much more than the 25 percent who experience such treatment in the general workforce.
Basically, women face barriers to well-paid jobs, negative stereotypes about their ability to perform construction work, sexual tension injected into work contexts, and supervisors and other officials who are not willing to do anything about it.
How Does the US Compare to the Rest of the World?
The state of female construction workers in the US is pitiful when compared to other countries around the world. For instance, Cambodia is experiencing a massive construction boom. With little future in the agricultural trade, more women are moving to the cities. One-third of all construction workers in Cambodia are female. Unfortunately, despite their large numbers, women still face a wage gap and sexist attitudes in the workplace.
The situation in similar in nearby Thailand where women make up 40 percent of the migrant construction workforce in the country. However, with the level of sexual harassment these women face, it is almost a prerequisite that they have a husband to protect them.
What Changes Does the US Need to Make?
Back in the United States, it is clear that policymakers need to increase their efforts in making sure that women have equal opportunities in construction. As the nation continues its economic comeback, it is crucial that we ensure women are not left out of high-wage jobs that can contribute to their economic security. There are numerous federal agencies that can address and alleviate the challenges female construction workers face:
- Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) – About 20 percent of the civilian workforce is under the jurisdiction of the OFCCP. This agency should increase its monitoring and oversight of contractors and strengthen the affirmative action requirements for women in construction.
- Office of Apprenticeship – Apprentices and apprenticeship programs in all 50 states are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship. They have the power to remove obstacles that female apprentices face.
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws that prohibit discrimination against an employee or job applicant based on gender. The Commission can increase its public education and enforcement of sexual harassment protections.
- Department of Education – The Office of Civil Rights within the Department of Education also enforces several laws that prohibit discrimination in federally funded programs. Prioritizing retention and recruitment of women in nontraditional STEM and CTE courses requires vigorous enforcement of the existing civil rights laws.
Trump Needs to Deliver on His Promises
Who ultimately oversees all of these federal agencies? Our very own President Trump. Though not directly in charge of these offices, Trump chose the officials who fill the leadership positions, and he has considerable sway over the policies of the OFCCP, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Education.
During his campaign for president, Trump regularly deflected claims that he was sexist or a misogynist by claiming that many of his best executives were women. A New York Times article even profiled some of his female employees who insisted he was a champion of women. During a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau back in February, he vowed that helping women in the workforce would remain a priority for his administration.
But so far, it appears Trump is all talk. In fact, his actions show that he is working against women’s rights in the workforce. For example, in March, he used an executive order to revoke Obama-era protections for women workers.
President Trump needs to show that he is as good as his word and enact laws, such as the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces law that forces construction companies with federal contracts to engage in fair hiring practices, take sexual harassment claims seriously, and provide female construction workers with equal pay.
Resources for Women Interested in Construction Work
The bottom line is that the construction industry needs more women, especially in leadership roles. Fortunately, there are a number of organizations that realize this and are providing resources to help get women involved. These include the National Association of Professional Women in Construction, National Association of Women in Construction, and Women Construction Owners & Executives (WCOE) USA.
Women interested in construction should also check out blogs like Tradeswomen.net, Constructing Equality, WCOE Blog, and The National Center for Construction Education and Research Blog.
The construction trade continues to be one of the most highly discriminatory industries in the world, but as women and men of all backgrounds put pressure on policymakers, including President Trump, equality is sure to follow.