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Narrowing the construction gap [Commentary]

In an effort to be trendy and to tap into a market that appears ripe for the picking, toy companies are newly trying to attract a female audience to building toys, blocks and gears that can be put together to make buildings and inventions. Ostensibly, the idea is to get girls interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers, especially engineering. But playing with building tools can also inspire girls to enter the construction trades, and more should be done to encourage this, starting in childhood and continuing through school, in training programs and in industry. The dearth of women in construction deprives our economy of productive workers and denies women entry into a most lucrative field on any level.

According to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 13 percent of engineers are female. When it comes to the number of engineers in construction, that goes down to about 10 percent, though they make up about 23 percent of the architects. Overall, women in construction make up about 9 percent of the total workforce, but most of that comes from women professionals and women in clerical and secretarial positions. Women construction managers make up about 6 percent of the total, and actual construction workers come in under 3 percent.

The first question is why so few women? The cultural perception is that construction work is for men. People tend to think that the work demands brute strength, but this is not the case at all and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and union rules along with new building technology has made the requirement for strength inapplicable to most trades. Then there is the notion of stereotyping. In construction, harassment, discrimination and intimidation are still deterrents to women entering the business. These deterrents applied to female fire fighters in the '70s and '80s and to police in the '50s and '60s. The notion of women not belonging has been debunked with the success of women in those fields. So what is the problem with construction work? Why aren't young women flocking to trade schools and apprenticeship programs to get an entrée into this world of good paying jobs? Why are they still settling for the pink collar world?

Part of the answer comes from an analysis of what caused the sea change in the other professions for women, and often minorities: mandatory participation and laws against discrimination. Reasonable quotas were quickly filled with willing women when conditions were made more attractive and protection of the law was enforced.

The same could easily be accomplished in the building trades if the government and industry set reasonable goals. Unions would court women-focused apprenticeships, and incentivized training programs would target women. Guidelines were talked about in the Carter era with a target of 7 percent, however, nothing was ever done about the recommendation, and in almost 40 years, the number of women in the trades has stayed the same, while women have made strides in virtually every other occupation.

A general bias against women working with tools still exists. Many men in the trades oppose women working and do what they can to discourage them. So much so that even women who enter the field often drop out due to the failure of society to accept them in their roles and the pervasive harassment and stereotyping that remains in the business. Better enforcement of existing laws might improve this. Right now, companies just monitor themselves. If there were a presence on construction sites rooting out intimidation and harassment like OSHA does supervising safety, it would eliminate the hostile environment in which many women are forced to work. A staggering 88 percent of women in the trades report being harassed, but most do not complain for lack of response and fear of retaliation. Women lay low and try to do their jobs. Loneliness and isolation are other reasons to leave.

Society has yet to embrace the idea of female construction workers. But maybe the new toys will help to garner interest in young women to go into the trades, which is the only way to participate in the actual building of things, whether it be machinery or structures. Eventually, toy makers will get smart and start marketing their dump trucks and excavators to a female audience. Instead of just inspiring engineers, and let's hope they do, perhaps the new toys will make girls want to work in structural steel or carpentry as well.

Barbara A. Res is an engineer and lawyer who lives in Old Tappan, N.J. She recently published a memoir, All Alone on the 68th Floor: How One Woman changed the Face of Construction. Her email is Barbara07675@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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