By Laura Beebe
Run a Google Image search for “construction work,” and an array of hard-hat-clad men and massive machinery will fill your screen. But the reality is the construction industry is actively benefiting from a growing proportion of women in the sector.
This International Women’s Day (March 8) presents new opportunity to challenge the false narrative that construction is men’s work. It’s also a time to acknowledge the steps that the industry must still take to improve equality in the construction workplace, by overcoming unconscious biases and creating better pathways for women into the field.
Historically, the construction industry has had the lowest level of female employment of any U.S. industry, and by a substantial margin.
Many women don’t even think about going into construction because it wasn’t always portrayed as a career option for us. Like me, a lot of people in the industry today have a dad who worked in the business, but we didn’t have many female mentors to look up to. This lack of visibility can make it hard for women to break into the business, or even consider it.
Celebrating women’s achievement in construction
Despite the historical barriers, I am encouraged to see that women are increasingly finding their own way into the industry.
Although still lagging behind the rest of the economy, construction has seen a consistent uptick in its share of women in the workforce since 2017. According to JLL research, that share broke the 10% barrier in 2020—for the first time in 20 years.
Many women see plenty of reasons to get into construction, too. For starters, the labor shortage creates an advantage for skilled female employees. And importantly, women in the field earn a more equitable pay rate than in other industries. Construction labor and trade workers boast the lowest smallest wage gap of any major occupation, with women earning 97% of men’s earnings on average.
A growing opportunity for women to lead
As the construction industry becomes increasingly digitized, business leaders are prioritizing innovation and diversity of thought in their hiring and promotion decisions.
Traditionally, many people have viewed construction work as a test of physical strength. But as technology evolves, we’re seeing a greater need for expertise in technical tools, engineering and safety—skills that know no gender barriers.
Plus, as essential work, construction has helped keep many women employed through the economic downturn. The number of women working in construction held steady in 2020, in contrast to the general U.S. workforce, which saw an outflow of women.
Addressing gender inequality in the construction sector
Construction may be gaining traction as a career path worthy of more women’s attention, but much work must still be done to create a more gender-equal industry.
For example, although women in construction labor and trade positions enjoy nearly equitable pay rates, a persistent wage gap exists in construction management. In these roles, women earn only 81.9% of men’s average wages, just slightly above the 81.1% average gap plaguing all industries nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Furthermore, while societal perception of women in construction has improved, construction firms must address unconscious bias among their employees. This begins with managers recognizing their historic tendency to choose a man over an equally qualified woman. It also requires going deeper than face-value to demonstrate diversity: Simply adding women into promotional photos doesn’t mean gender equity has been achieved. Women must be represented at all levels of the organization, all the way up to executive leadership.
To set women up for success, organizations must proactively create a culture that supports and understands women. Skilled working mothers can bring even more value when employers provide the resources they need to be successful, like childcare assistance and wellness tools, as well as policies that support work-life balance, whether it’s banning late-night email or improving flexible work programs.
These efforts are critical for supporting women in the construction workforce today, yet the industry must also attract more female recruits. The construction industry could benefit from a PR program to change perceptions and bring in more women.
Luckily, I see progress on the horizon, such as growing efforts to support young women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. According to a National Association for Women in Construction report, universities with a construction and engineering focus are attracting more women. As more women graduate from these programs, construction companies will enjoy a greater pool of female candidates from which to recruit.
Gender equity in construction is a win-win
Abandoning old misconceptions about women in construction, closing the wage gap and forging more pathways to quality jobs can help advance important societal goals. It can also benefit business.
Leading firms are beginning to demand more gender equity from their suppliers. And construction firms that value a diversity of thought can achieve greater things by recognizing success isn’t just about being the best or strongest bricklayer—it’s about bringing innovation and technology to create better outcomes.
I’ve always found construction to be an exciting and rewarding career because I get to work on something that will be there for a lifetime. In one project I managed, for example, we were able to save enough money to build a playground for the onsite daycare. To this day, when we drive past that building, my kids proudly say, “Mom did that.”
Building a gender equal construction industry will help our kids grow up in a world that isn’t just better for women—it’s better for everyone.
Laura Beebe is the Chief Operating Office of JLL’s Project
and Development Services