Every Innovation Starts With A Conversation

By Julia Parker

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On March 21, the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Every Day Counts (EDC) 6 Strategic Workforce Development team, in collaboration with the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau, hosted a Women in Construction webinar.  

The session, which was open to all, featured members from both groups as they discussed common obstacles for women in the construction industry. Moreover, presenters spoke to several initiatives that are being implemented to support the recruitment, training, placement and retention of women in the workforce.  

It is no secret that the construction industry has been male dominated for a long time. According to the webinar, women continue to struggle to find their place in the unconventional field.   

From a lack of access to proper training and experience to discrimination and harassment, women in the industry often feel isolated and unsupported. With few female colleagues and mentors to turn to, finding community can be challenging. For women of color, the lack of representation is far worse. 

“While women of color are joining the construction trades, their numbers are still very low,” said Deputy Director of the Women’s Bureau Lori Rambo. “When it comes to Latinas and women that are Black, they have less than a one in 100 chance to work with another Black or Latina woman in the trade.” 

The culture of the industry can also be unwelcoming for women. This includes reports of gender discrimination and harassment. 

According to a recent report, more than 44 percent of female construction workers reported that they had seriously considered leaving the industry due to lack of respect or discrimination (Institute for Women’s Policy Research).  

In addition to toxic work environments, women face other challenges that are not typically experienced by men, such as adequate childcare and safety clothing that properly accommodates their bodies. These challenges are further complicated by the lack of available resources.  

In terms of training and experience, women in the field are not awarded the same access to certifications and apprenticeships. This makes promotion and career advancement difficult. 

However, targeted outreach efforts with an emphasis on inclusive and gender-neutral language is recommended to further encourage women.  

“When it comes to recruiting women and retaining women in pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs,” said Rambo. “Targeted outreach efforts with an emphasis on the inclusive language are recommended, as well as gender neutral language.” 

Despite the numerous obstacles that often prevent women from flourishing in the field, recruiting women isn’t the main issue.  

“A big part of this is the fact that for women entering the construction industry, it’s not that hard to get the job. But the issue of retention and promotion is particularly difficult,” said Director of Civil Rights at the Vermont Department of Transportation Lori Valbrun. 

“We know that women are really good at these jobs. We know that they bring to the construction workforce everything that we’re looking for on a construction project,” said Valburn. “The attention to detail, the strength and the stamina, their communication skills, their ability to collaborate, all of these are great qualities and make them successful. Why they’re increasingly not staying in the construction industry is for the reasons that have been identified.”  

From being overlooked for promotions to facing discrimination on the job site, the obstacles, at times, seem endless. However, as the construction industry has evolved, so has women’s ability to advocate for themselves through programs, initiatives and policies. These efforts, and the individuals championing them, present women with opportunities and further diversify the workforce.  

Federal regulations require every state DOT to develop training and apprenticeship programs tailored for women, minorities and disadvantages persons. Every transportation agency has an On-The-Job Training Program. The primary objective of the program is to help train and promote program participants to journey-level positions. 

“It [Vermont’s On-The-Job Training program] really changed the landscape,” said Valburn. “It’s given our contractors an opportunity to bring people into their workforce and diversify their workforce in ways that we had not really contemplated could happen.” 

Another effort that aims to promote gender equity in construction is the Women Building Infrastructure Initiative. Led by Chicago Women in Trades, this initiative is meant to increase the number of women entering construction trades and apprenticeship programs. They also work to promote policies and practices that ensure equitable, inclusive, and respectful work environments.  

“Our Women Building Infrastructure Initiative was designed to make sure that women and people of color have access to all the trades’ career opportunities that come with these infrastructure advancements,” said Lark Jackson, associate director at Chicago Women in Trades’ National Center for Women’s Equity in Apprenticeship and Employment. “And that owners, contractors, and subcontractors really have the guidance they need on how they can ensure workforce equity on their projects.” 

Women in the construction industry have the potential to be leaders in the field. Furthermore, with the right support and programs in place, they can continue to break down barriers and create a more inclusive future for the industry.  

Watch the full webinar video here.  

Read the Institute for Women’s Policy Research report here.