Women and Construction

In his 2023 State of the Union address, President Biden recognized Saria Gwin-May, a 34-year female journeyman ironworker from Cincinnati. She had already introduced President Biden earlier this year at the Brent Spence Bridge in Covington, Ky. Having had such a positive impact on the president and the Iron Workers Union, she was invited to be a guest of First Lady Jill Biden at the address and sat with her in the First Lady’s viewing box. Gwin-May’s acknowledgement was reflective of the growing trend of a new, diverse generation of construction workers, specifically the increase of women workers.

More women are joining the construction industry than ever before

By Mark Robins

In his 2023 State of the Union address, President Biden recognized Saria Gwin-May, a female, 34-year journeyman ironworker from Cincinnati, a guest of First Lady Jill Biden who sat in her viewing box.

(Photo courtesy of White House Press Room

Though more women are joining the construction industry than ever before, they still make up a very small portion of the workforce. According to labor statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, women numbered 10.9% of the entire U.S. construction workforce in 2022. According to Tim Taylor, director of research for the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), “This number has increased about 2% since 2017, but much of this increase is confined to women in managerial, technical and administrative roles. Within construction craft professional positions, where the greatest shortages exist, less than 4% are women.”

But that number is changing for the better.

Ironworker Danya Simpson

Encouraging Change

The U.S. government and industry associations are responding to and encouraging women in the construction workspace. Bureau programs like Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) grants help fund training programs that specifically address increasing women’s participation in skilled trades. Many federal and private contracts have percentage-based requirements for inclusion of women and minorities in a contractor’s workforce as a prerequisite for being awarded work.

Swanton, Ohio-based Foundation Steel is a women-owned company whose focus has been to provide equal opportunity employment encouraging women in our industry. “Our company is a union company, and we are a part of Ironworker Management Progressive Action Cooperative Trust (I.M.P.A.C.T.),” explains Rachel Gordon, marketing and project administrator at Foundation Steel. “It has events like ENR Groundbreaking Women in Construction—serving as a catalyst that helps women expand their presence, influence and career success to share, learn, challenge and inspire. [Also,] labor unions advocate for diverse workforce on projects. This encourages an increase with employing women in construction. The more we share news about women in construction and hear about their success stories, the more encouragement it gives other women that they can do this too!”

Many organizations and individual trade unions are developing their own pre-apprentice and diversity programs to encourage increased participation by women and people of color. The most recent example of government programs is the Biden Administration’s Talent Pipeline Challenge in connection with the infrastructure bill. The Challenge incentivizes equitable workforce development by committing $800 million in funding for training programs that meet the goals of the challenge.

Apprentice union ironworker Tabbie Lenegar

Some states also have incentives and grant funding for programs that are geared toward increasing a diverse workforce. “[This includes] the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) and its Division of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS), who announced in late 2022 the availability of $25 million funding to improve access to training and employment opportunities for women and underserved populations within the building trades,” says David Beard, president of Ironworkers District Council of St. Louis and vicinity. “The ironworkers union and is labor management affiliate IMPACT have established a Paid Maternity Leave program for women. The program will compensate women for up to six months if they are unable to perform the duties of iron work due to physical limitations arising from pregnancy and childbirth. We feel it has increased the retention of women in our organization. We believe increased participation of women is an asset to the industry as well as our union. It will help us win work and grow our membership by recruiting and training the best workers for the job, regardless of gender. The Iron Workers union has identified gender diversity as a top priority when it comes to building our workforce. With an aging workforce and shortage of available labor throughout the construction industry, it’s past time we tap the potential of the other 50% of the population.”

Ironworker Johnna O’Gassian taking a break from working on a metal roof at the Bristol County Agricultural High School Project in Dighton, Ma.

Several Unique Qualities

Taylor cites his NCCER research, which was validated by interviews with various project management teams, points to several unique qualities that women bring to the industry—namely, they have a team-focused approach, attention to detail, keep a clean and organized job site, and are focused on safety. Management members stated that female craft professionals were much more focused on following the work process as designed instead of relying on physical strength. “Not only do these processes bring efficiency, they also protect the individuals from injury, and, in turn, can potentially affect safety scores and time off needed for injuries. Women follow the plan and think through how they can complete the work without rushing into it. Women tend to follow directions and plans and pay more attention to how they are performing tasks, which leads to a focus on details.”

As a woman working in construction for over 30 years, Lee Ann M. Slattery, sales support manager at ATAS International Inc., Allentown, Pa., say that rarely is she the only woman when she attends an industry event or visit a job site. “Years ago, that wasn’t the case; I do find it inspiring to see the number of women who now work in our industry. I think mindsets are changing, regarding women working in our industry. Young women, and their parents, are becoming more aware of non-traditional career options, and the fact that skills can be attained with little to no student debt. Also, with the overall shortage of skilled tradespeople, entry-level pay is higher than many other career options, and there is a lot of opportunity for advancement, including future business ownership. Business owners in our industry are also becoming more aware of how women can positively impact their teams and contribute with ideas and different ways of thinking, which can result in a more inclusive company culture.”

Charlotte Dymarkowski, president/CEO of Foundation Steel, explains, “We need to keep earning respect. It will not be given to a woman readily and will be quickly withdrawn at the first sign of weakness or error. I have never let that stop me and if any woman wants to make it, she can’t either. The imbalance and the ease with which men in the industry gain respect does bother me at times but I choose not to let that last more than a minute. Women are different than men. We’re not better, or worse, but we do bring a different perspective.”

Let’s Build Construction Camp for Girls is a program designed for middle- and high school-aged girls to attend a free week-long camp to explore the construction trades, architecture, engineering, and construction manufacturing through hands-on experiences and field trips.

The need to accommodate mothers is a key barrier to bringing more women into the construction industry. For women working in construction, there needs to be accommodations when they are building a family. The fear of losing your job due to restrictions while being pregnant and accommodations after having the baby can make women delay their personal priorities or create issues with their partner.

Not surprising, sexual harassment must be addressed, which Taylor says was among the top problems identified by NCCER focus groups. “This is supported by other research (RT-370) that surveyed 2,740 craft professionals. When asked to rate their job experience related to respect, being treated unprofessionally, and experiencing derogatory comments, female craft professionals report a worse experience in all three categories than their male colleagues, and the difference is statistically significant.”

Make Your Voice Be Heard

To overcome these and other potential issues, Gomez asserts that is so important to sit at the table and make your voice be heard. “If you have strong ethics and dedication, you can rule in this field! At the end, it is all worth it! Reinforcing self-confidence on the job will increase the distinct belief that women bring value to the team. Due to the increasing labor shortage, women may be the heroes the metal construction industry requires.”

Slattery encourages women in construction to not be afraid to ask questions and ask for those promotions, pay increases and additional responsibilities. “Become active in the industry associations and serve on boards and committees. Make yourself heard and visible, so that younger women and those newer to our industry realize the opportunities available to them. There is certainly a truth in the saying by Billie Jean King, ‘You have to see it to be it.’”