By Steph Jackman

Take a moment and picture a busy construction site. The heavy clang of excavators and low whir of machinery meld with the steady beat of boots on gravel. Voices shout, trucks beep, and engines roar as heavy loads are pushed, raised, and released. Now focus on the workers. See how they are dressed. Study their faces as they are hard at work. The frenzy of construction may seem chaotic to your eyes, but to the expert supervisor it is precisely orchestrated. Despite the apparent harmony, something is missing from this scene. In the construction site you envisioned, where are the women?

Women now make up 47% of the total U.S. workforce, but account for only 1 in 10 individuals employed in construction. Despite significant gains in the last 50 years, women remain seriously underrepresented in the construction industry.

Why So Few?

The primary safety and health hazards in construction include falling, being struck, getting caught in/between, electrocution, musculoskeletal disorders, and exposure. While these issues affect both men and women, women also face additional health and safety concerns:

    • Higher rates of harassment: Female construction workers have the second highest rate of sexual harassment complaints (female miners have the highest rate). A study by the Engineering News-Record (ENR) found that a staggering 85% of women experience some form of sexual harassment while working in the construction industry. Inappropriate jokes or innuendos, suggestive texts and emails, vandalism of personal property, vulgar nicknames, exposure to pornography, unwanted physical contact, and even sexual assault were all reported. Harassment breeds a hostile workplace which becomes a serious threat to employees’ health and safety, regardless of gender.
    • Increased risk of injury: Physiologically, women have a different pelvic structure and lower center of gravity than men. Because women, on average, have less upper body strength, many techniques for lifting and handling may not be the safest or most effective for female employees. Many women in construction also feel their physical strength is tested by male co-workers. They are therefore less likely to ask for help and more likely to overcompensate, which results in higher rates of injury.
    • Lack of sanitation: Many construction sites do not have facilities with running water. Most use portable toilets that are typically unisex, offer little privacy, and are not very well maintained. Few, if any, are equipped to handle sanitary napkins. In a study by the Center for Women in Technology (CWIT), 80% of tradeswomen have encountered worksites with dirty toilets or no toilets. Unclean facilities can result in disease or encourage unhealthy behaviors such as not drinking water on the job or holding urine for too long resulting in dehydration or urinary tract infections.
    • Fewer training opportunities: In a NIOSH study, 39% of women reported wishing they had been better trained before working on a construction site. Because women are a minority in the construction industry, they may be less likely to receive informal training through mentoring and coaching like their male counterparts. Women are also more likely to be assigned to routine, unskilled tasks (like cleaning and sorting tools) and not given enough variety in assignments to adequately learn their trade.

The Solution: Training and Communication

The unique challenges faced by women in construction can largely be resolved through training and communication. Training programs can underscore the importance of personalized personal protective equipment (PPE) that not only adheres to safety standards, but also properly fits diverse body shapes and sizes within the industry.

Training programs can also educate women on approaches to physiological movements that are more tailored to the female body. Since women’s lower body strength is closest to a man’s, using techniques that rely on lower rather than upper body strength can significantly reduce injury.

Comprehensive training initiatives focused on cultivating cultures of respect and fostering communication about appropriate behavior empower women to report incidents without fear. By encouraging dialogue between male and female co-workers, these programs can challenge stereotypes, ensuring that women feel comfortable in the workplace.

Offering informal mentoring sessions as well as continuing education opportunities through microlearning will help women feel more confident and find more success in their trade, increasing the productivity and profitability of the company. By implementing effective training and communication strategies, the construction industry can pave the way for a more inclusive and safer workplace for women, promoting professional growth and well-being.

To learn more about how you can empower women employees through training, communication and engagement, schedule a meeting to speak with a Tyfoom training consultant.

Attracting Women in Construction

Despite outdated gender norms and subconscious bias, women should be in the construction space, and they have made substantial gains over the last 50 years. In our next post, we will examine the benefits of having women in the construction industry and explore different ways to attract and retain female employees in construction.