“The numbers are just so dismal,” said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center and the report’s author. The Center researches, analyzes and advocates on women’s employment and educational issues. “Numbers have not budged over decades, despite having aspirational goals put in place” to land women in construction trades jobs, which often pay twice as much as many female-dominated occupations.
Mary Battle, 50, has encouraged other women to join her in the cement trades, and she’s seen the numbers gradually increase. “You just have to have a thick skin, to deal with the men in the field,” said Battle, business manager of Local 891 of the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons International Association in the District of Columbia.
She’s one of the women featured in the National Women’s Law Center report, which is based on a variety of data sources and other reports on women in skilled trades. It’s startling to see such scant change since the early 1980s — and that so many substantial roadblocks remain to women pursing construction careers, Chaudhry said in an interview.
Chaudhry said that “harassment and hostility on the job” are pervasive. Almost nine in ten female construction workers experienced sexual harassment on the job, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report cited in the law center’s study, compared to around one in three for all women.
“They’ll harass and belittle you to try to make you quit. But we must stick with it, or else things won’t ever get better for women on the job,” Battle says in the law center’s report. “I have worked in cement masonry for more than 30 years, and we are still dealing with the problems we had back then.”
Battle, a mother of six children, said her career has brought challenges, but also rewards. Early in her career, she said, she worked with a group of men who respected women. After a dozen years, she moved to another sector, which provided concrete and plaster to commercial projects; there men demeaned her and called her names.
“I pushed the issue. If they told me I couldn’t do it, I said, ‘Yes I can,’ ” Battle said in an interview. “I was a pushy little woman.” Battle is reportedly the first woman to be elected to her post in union leadership in its 150-year history.
Still she sees the problems persisting today. One young woman coming through as an apprentice this year was paired with “a man who is totally disrespectful, totally nasty. [They think] ‘If he doesn’t break you, you’re going to make it,’ ” Battle said. “I keep telling her: ‘Stay with it. Don’t quit.’ ” She thinks this young woman will make it because she has a very positive attitude.
Women are somewhat more likely to drop out of apprenticeships than men, according to the report.
Gender stereotypes start in high school or before, so young women are less likely to get into shop classes or hear about construction apprenticeship opportunities. This could be due to “subtle steering” of girls into more female-focused careers or hostility if they make a nontraditional choice like welding or plumbing, said Chaudhry.
Yet construction jobs are lucrative, with top plumbers earning more than $84,440 a year, close to twice the median pay nationwide ($49,140). A shortage of skilled labor forced many employers to raise wages in recent months.
Median hourly wage for construction occupations was $19.55 in 2013, roughly double the wage for female-dominated jobs such as home health aides, housekeepers and child care workers, the report noted.
“Women need access to these jobs” that are high paying and expected to grow in the next decade, Chaudhry said.
Members of the Associated General Contractors, an industry group, “strongly support having a construction workforce that reflects the great diversity of our country,” and they have no tolerance for workplace harassment, spokesman Brian Turmail, said via email. He noted the Law Center’s numbers seem to count women in “hard hat jobs,” such as carpenters, and not the women who work in administrative and office settings. When women in those types of positions are counted, women represent 12.7 percent of the construction workforce, he noted, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Nearly two-thirds of the construction companies that are members of the Associated General Contractors say they’re having difficulties filling skilled worker jobs, in part because of the decline of vocational educational programs. The construction industry hopes to “break down the decades old, and incorrect, stereotypes that have prompted too many people, especially women, to avoid high-paying construction careers,” Turmail said.
The report ended with a number of recommendations to U.S. government agencies to target enforcement action at the construction industry and to open doors to more apprenticeships.
Battle sees another approach that could help women: “We need to get more women involved in supervisory positions, in teaching our trade.”
Women who have paid their dues need to push ahead in construction unions and construction companies, she said. “The only way to make a change is to get involved.”
Vickie Elmer is a freelance writer based in Detroit who covers careers, leadership and women’s issues. She blogs on careers, creativity and kindness at WorkingKind.com.