Women in Construction: #MeToo in the Building Trades?

One Pagers

By Susan Green, IWPR Affiliated Researcher

Most recent revelations of workplace sexual misconduct have come from high-profile industries: movies, TV news, professional sports, performing arts, high-tech, and electoral politics, among others. But sexual harassment is at least as common on many blue-collar job sites which may explain, in part, why so few women dare to venture into the construction trades.  An IWPR report on women working in construction describes the very challenging conditions in that industry.

Drawing on a 2013 IWPR interview study of women working in the building trades, the report details women’s employment, earnings, and work experiences as the construction industry emerged from the 2007-09 recession.  Construction jobs give women—and men—a chance to earn family-sustaining wages without a college education.  For millions of women, however, this opportunity never materializes.  Despite decades of federal policies aimed at increasing the number of women in construction, women’s share of these jobs nationally has remained under 4 percent.

For the more than 200,000 women who do work in construction, the experience can be decidedly mixed.  The majority of women report being treated mostly equally when it comes to safety, formal training, and use of tools on the construction job site.  One woman declared that “at my job men and women get equal training.”

Yet, being treated as an equal on the job and with respect is another matter.  According to the report, 31 percent of women say that sexual harassment is a constant or frequent experience at work, and 32 percent of respondents of color report frequent racial harassment and discrimination.  Sexual orientation discrimination is even more common; 37 percent of respondents who identify as lesbian, gay, or transgender say that they frequently face discrimination or harassment based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.  One woman states flatly, “Gender discrimination is rampant, constant, and considered normal in that industry.”

In addition, roughly 40 percent of women say that, compared to their male co-workers, they are rarely if ever treated equally in hiring and work hour assignments.  Working fewer hours means lower pay, and it also can have pernicious long-term effects, especially for apprentices; working fewer hours prolongs the apprenticeship period that comes with a lower training wage, and postpones workers’ qualification  for journey-level status and a higher pay rate. Discriminatory hiring and work hour allocation can substantially reduce women’s incomes well into the future.

The report finds especially challenging conditions for women when it comes to promotions, with nearly six in ten women reporting that they are not treated equally.  Inequitable promotion practices limit women’s earnings, damage their careers, and may also block systemic change in the construction industry. Women in supervisory positions can be role models for other women and can help level the playing field throughout the building trades.

Although over one in ten women in the building trades report having filed a charge of discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), only a minority of these feel that their claims were successfully addressed.  By contrast, many women say they usually sort out the problem themselves, often with the help of male co-workers. One woman describes her “solidarity-based method for coping with harassment [….] My union brothers have helped me without resorting to legal reporting.” As another explains, “There is usually at least one jerk per job, but the majority of my coworkers are decent humans.”

Finally, it is important to note that the report offers an incomplete picture of women in construction.  Only women who remain in the building trades participated in the underlying survey.  The report does not capture the views of the many women who leave construction altogether, whether for higher pay, better promotion opportunities, or a harassment-free workplace.  One can only guess how many of those women have recently tweeted #MeToo.

Women in the Construction Trades: Earnings, Workplace Discrimination, and the Promise of Green Jobs

The full report is available here

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research is a national advisor to the National Center for Women’s Equity in Apprenticeship and Employment. More information about this effort can be found at womensequitycenter.org.