Women in the Trades: Bringing Guts and Grit to a Male Dominated Industry

Women in construction trades

With the current talent and skills shortages across the industry, construction could really benefit from drawing on an under-used section of the labor force: namely, women.

Women today represent just 12.8% of the construction workforce in the UK, and tend to sit in supporting office roles, like administration, HR or marketing. Technical and on-site construction roles tend to be overwhelmingly male dominated. The UK has the lowest proportion of female engineering professionals in Europe, at just 5%. Meanwhile, women make up 3% of manual roles, 8% of haulage roles and 12% of professional roles in the industry.

Women could play a vital role in filling key vacancies at construction firms. And with technology changing many existing job roles and creating the need for new skills, now could be the perfect opportunity for construction firms to encourage more women into the industry.

Why The Trades Aren’t Already More Diverse

On the whole, a career in construction trades can be a great choice for women. With strong pay, good benefits, and satisfying work it is a perfect option for women who want a fulfilling career that can also support them and their families.

Yet the trades continue to attract an almost exclusively male workforce. Why?

Built for men

Historically (and indeed presently), men have formed the vast majority of the workforce in the construction industry, and that’s still reflected in many elements of the working culture today. The jobsite especially tends to be “made for men”, in ways that might not be immediately obvious.

Toilet facilities might only be provided for men on-site, while signs like “men at work” and “men working overhead” are still common. Women can struggle to find personal protective equipment (PPE) and safety harnesses that will fit them. Legend has it that the dimensions of a clay brick were designed so that it would fit neatly into a male hand.

Even technical roles can be tacitly geared towards fully able-bodied men. The founder of PlanGrid, Tracy Young, was inspired to set up the company because of her experiences as a quality surveyor on-site. After years of lugging around huge quantities of heavy, inconvenient paper plans, she co-founded a company to provide easy to access digital plans to use on-site.

Issues extend beyond the jobsite to the way that jobs are structured. Some firms might not offer maternity or flexible working, provisions that might have a more obvious impact on women but would equally benefit men.

Negative perceptions

Male-driven working cultures can make construction businesses feel very unwelcoming to women, in ways that might not be immediately obvious. In a documentary called Hard Hatted Women, tradeswomen in the US describe their experiences at work. Although they love their jobs, female workers can constantly face questions like “why would you want to do this?”

This is contributing to a serious image problem for construction. When asked to describe the industry, parents and teachers frequently used the term “not for girls.” Even teachers have a negative response; 62% said that less than one in ten of the girls in their class would be suited to a career in construction. This is discouraging women of all ages from entering the industry – and depriving businesses of talent at a time when it’s really needed.

Other Challenges for Women in Construction

Melendez says that safer, more sanitary, and supportive work environments for women are a necessary first step.

Additionally, people tend to seek career paths that they can relate to–in other words, they look at the people in these fields and see if they see themselves in those roles. If women only see men in the trades, they’ll assume it’s not a career for them.

This is why exposure is so important, something that the film Hard Hatted Woman aims to do. It wants to expose women like Melendez to others, especially young women, to the grit and amazing work that these women show as they become masters of their craft.

Women need to know, in Melendez’s words, that they “have as much a right on the jobsite as anyone.”

Barlow says that all of the women she’s worked within the course of filming her documentary have stories about times they’ve had to summon heroic levels of grit to overcome challenges.

“When I chose the characters to star in my film,” she says, “I was looking for personality and charisma and diversity. Women who would tell honest stories of why they chose this career, their accomplishments, and their challenges.”

She found them.

In addition to the challenges listed above, Barlow says that filming these women exposed her to a battery of reasons more women don’t enter the trades:

  • Exposure. You don’t know what you don’t know. If young women and girls are unaware of the option of a career in the trades, then they will never have the opportunity to pursue it.
  • The loss of shop class. Tight budgets and emphasis on college prep have caused many schools to decrease access or simply discontinue shop classes. Those that do have shop classes generally don’t specifically encourage girls to participate.
  • Poor access to apprenticeships. Most apprenticeships are held by young men.
  • Bias on the jobsite. Old school prejudices sometimes limit women’s access to informal training and promotions.

Yet, despite the challenges, many of the women who choose this work, love it. Despite conditions, despite the wear and tear of the job, despite the additional challenges of being a woman on the jobsite, they love it.

“That speaks to such a deep human need to build, and to be in your body, and to be connected to the work you do,” says Barlow. “It’s a testament to the glory of the work that these women stay in it despite everything.”

Because of the pioneering work of women like Melendez and a changing environment, construction is becoming more diverse. More diverse in people and ideas.

The shift to a more diverse workforce requires changes to processes and procedures to make the workplace more equitable, safer, and more supportive for all workers. Some of these changes are things that construction companies may never have thought about before.

For example, in order to function properly and keep workers safe, PPE must fit correctly. With more women on the jobsite, this means ensuring that PPE and safety equipment is sized to fit everyone, from large men to small women.

We also have to make sure that the culture of the workplace makes it comfortable for all workers on the jobsite to speak up if there’s an issue, and not be afraid that they’ll be called out and seen as the problem.

These measures make the workplace safer for everyone. Thankfully, many GCs have taken note and begun instituting measures to address both the physical and emotional safety of all workers. But while this is a step in the right direction, we still have a long way to go.

What Needs to Happen to Increase Women in the Trades

Barlow says that one first step many GCs need to take is creating a culture in which workers of any gender feel comfortable reporting unsafe conditions and behavior on the worksite, and know that the problem will be addressed and that they themselves won’t be punished for reporting it.

Second, according to both Barlow and Melendez, it’s important for jobsites to be clean and healthy for everyone. A big issue on some jobsites is the lack of clean, accessible sanitation facilities, which can be a health hazard.

Third, says Barlow, companies need to take women’s safety on the jobsite seriously. She remembers one jobsite where she was filming a young woman who was new to the trades and feeling vulnerable. Periodically, a female safety officer would circle by and check in with her, and ask her to let her know if she needed anything.

“Why aren’t more jobsites like this?” Barlow muses.

Fourth, companies need to provide PPE that fits. This has gotten better in recent years, but is still a problem for women in the trades, who often show up on a site to discover that there are no harnesses or other gear in their size.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, we need to do a better job of telling the stories of women in construction. When young women see themselves reflected, and hear the real stories of other women doing these jobs, they are more likely to consider it as a career.

Why Diversity Matters in Construction

“When the jobsite is better for women, it’s better for men,” says Barlow. “In my observation of women in lead roles on jobsites, they seem to have a humanizing presence. They help remove some of the hyper-macho culture, allowing everyone to be more reasonable and thoughtful in how they do the work.”

Melendez agrees. “I’m always looking for the safest possible solution to a problem. Because when we make it safe for us, we make it safe for everyone.”

In the past, it was thought that women weren’t suited to construction work, especially the trades, because of their smaller bodies and average lower physical strength.

“But the truth is this work is more about your brain,” says Melendez.

“Even women get caught up in thinking the best worker is the strongest worker,” adds Barlow. “But the more women stand up and say I’m smart and a good communicator and have good technical skills, the more it helps men get in touch with their individual value as opposed to always competing to be the strongest one on the site.”

Signs of Progress for Women in Construction

Despite the challenges and the continuing small number of women among the trades, there are signs of hard-won progress.

In 2017, the Iron Workers Union and the Ironworker Management Progressive Action Cooperative Trust (IMPACT) announced a paid maternity leave benefit that is the first of its kind in the building trades. It assures women of up to 8 months paid leave prior to birth, and six to eight weeks after. This helps to eliminate one of the many potential health hazards and barriers that can drive women out of the trades.

Of course, progress doesn’t happen without a lot of work. Melendez was a vocal proponent of the policy, and instrumental in its passing. She’s rightfully proud of her contribution and hopeful for the future of other trades as well. She’s passionate about advocating for the safety and health of all women on the jobsite, as a path to opening the trades up to more women.

“The minute you make construction safe for women, all of our issues go away,” she says.

Fortunately, some companies, like McCarthy and Plaza Construction, are working hard to make women’s safety and health a priority on their teams. Plaza’s recent decision to change the iconic “men at work” signs to use the more inclusive phrase “men and women at work” may not solve all of the challenges facing women on the jobsite, but it signals a new era of openness and inclusion.

This is good news for an industry that struggles to meet its labor needs, and for women who feel called to the trades.

“I always wanted to work with my hands,” says Melendez. “I went to school for welding, and I never turned back. It was the best decision I ever made.”

And thanks to the guts, grit, and game plan of women like Melendez, it’s a decision more women may make in the coming years.

The Top Resources for Women in the Trades

No doubt, as you drive down the road or walk past a construction site these days, you’ve noticed a significantly noticeable prevalence of women in hard hats over the years. Today, more and more women are entering the industry, doing everything from operating heavy machinery to perfecting their craft and overseeing jobsites to managing enterprise construction companies.

However, while women comprise around 47% of the total U.S. labor force, they are underrepresented in the construction industry. In fact, a shockingly small percentage, 10%, of the construction workforce is female.

However, there is some more promising news; the presence of women in construction is growing. A significant contributing factor to this influx of female talent is due to the phenomenal efforts of many organizations, companies, and individuals.

We recently published an infographic about the need for more women (and better policies) in construction. While the infographic is very much still worth a look, this year, we wanted to flip the spotlight on the many positive and outstanding initiatives supporting females in construction trades.

If you’re seeking resources for women in the trades, whether as a female worker yourself, or a male or female manager with women on your team, you’ll find them here, below. From general industry support to supporting the young and upcoming generations of women in construction, here are 15 amazing initiatives that outstanding companies, organizations, and associations are rallying behind to build a better workforce for all.

1. National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC)

Founded in 1953 in Fort Worth, Texas, the National Association of Women in Construction (or NAWIC) has been one of the most influential and most extensive resources for women in construction for more than 60 years. The organization now holds a large annual conference, supports scholarships and supports programs for promising women in building. It has several chapters across the country, making it accessible to a wide range of workers.

2. Women in Construction Summit

If shattering the glass ceiling is on your personal bucket list, or a goal for your company or workers, the Women in Construction Summit is a shoo-in event. It’s London’s premier event for women in construction, a day designed as a platform for leaders and aspiring professionals. With a variety of speakers sharing personal stories and industry insights, it’s one of the most empowering resources for women in construction.

3. Professional Women in Construction (PWC)

For nearly 40 years, Professional Women in Construction has sought to bolster women in their pursuit of careers in what has mostly been a man’s world. To that end, PWC takes as its “mission is to support, advance, and connect women and promote diversity within the architecture, engineering, construction, (AEC) and related industries.” Founded in 1980, the organization has chapters in major metro areas across throughout the Eastern U.S. including New York, Boston, Connecticut, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. Today, it’s one of the most far-reaching resources for women in construction.

Resources Fostering Female Leaders in Construction

4. Women Construction Owners & Executives (WCOE)

WCOE seeks to do more than help women working in construction; it wants to put the reins in their hands. The goal of this organization is to create leadership opportunities for women in owner and executive roles, influence legislation governing their roles and bolster female-owned companies.

5. Groundbreaking Women in Construction

Put on by ENR and designed for current and future female leaders in construction, Groundbreaking Women in Construction (GWIC) is a fantastic resource for women in construction. It’s more than just a conference, according to its website. It is a true agent for change, offering inspiration, influence and career growth potential. Today, “GWIC has grown into one of the construction industry’s premier leadership and talent management events for industry members.”

Resources Supporting Women in the Trades

6. TD Industries Women in the Trades Program

Recently, the large national subcontractor, TD Industries, partnered with United Way THRIVE to pilot a program, which helped train women to become sheet metal technicians. These women come from all walks of life but now look forward to thriving and financially freeing careers as construction workers. Interested in learning more? Watch the video below: 

7. Women in Construction Operations (WIOPS)

“In 2013, a group of outstanding women from Southern California construction companies and related fields joined together to start a group geared towards mentoring women working in the operation side of construction,” explains Women in Construction Operations (WIOPS). Today, they offer resources for women in construction ranging from general contractors, subcontractors, engineers and architects, owner’s reps and construction management personnel.

8. Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) – Women in Construction Leadership Council

When it comes to resources for women in construction, the Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association or SMACNA offers a powerful one. This large association has been influential in supporting women in the trades. Their women’s council puts on large national events and participates in conferences and sessions, helping current and future workers navigate the construction industry and advance their careers more effectively.

9. Women in NECA – National Electrical Contractors Association

As their website explains, “Women In NECA was established to provide a collaborative forum for women affiliated with NECA-member companies, chapters and LMCCs.” The goal of this initiative is to enhance professional development for women, promote diversity (both by encouraging women in their work, as well as encouraging women of all backgrounds), and inform future professionals about possible job opportunities in the industry.

10. Women in Skilled Trades (WIST)

Women-founded, women-owned and women-oriented, WIST is one of the most powerful resources for women in construction. Helmed by Tori Menold from SiteAware and Carol Cool from Infrastructure and Planning Services at Michigan State University, this Michigan-based program serves single moms who’d like to join a trade. With educational events, apprenticeship preparation programs and more, it’s an incredible opportunity for women who haven’t yet had many.

11. Chicago Women in the Trades (CWIT)

A regional provider of resources for women in construction, CWIT was founded in 1981 and is on a mission to see that all women succeed in the industry. Prioritizing equal access to education, information and jobs, they run unique programs such as the Technical Opportunities Program and Women in Welding Program, as well as provides leadership development and technical assistance.

12. Women in Solar Program

Solar jobs are gaining importance and popularity in the construction industry, and the rising opportunity goes hand in hand. Of the top 13 careers in construction, solar photovoltaic installers sits near the top of the list. The Woman in Solar Program capitalizes on this with their National Women in Solar Initiative, born in 2014. Their goals: to increase gender diversity, offer professional development opportunities and connect women workers and leaders across the solar industry.

Inspiring the Future Generations of Female Workers

13. NAWIC Summer Camp

Not all resources for women in construction need start at the career level. The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) summer camp believes it’s never too early to draw young girls into the construction trade. Each year, the San Diego chapter hosts a camp for two dozen high school girls, where participants get to learn more about the trades and work on a real construction project. Even better, “Participants who have gone through at least two years of camp can apply to be the project superintendent and receive a $500 stipend at the end of camp.”

14. Build Like a Girl

Individual companies can make a huge difference in supporting women in construction. Take Miron Construction, which hosts a free annual event for women in the 7th-10th grades. With a full day of hands-on construction experience and learning, as well as detailed information about industry opportunity, the event seeks to inspire young girls in time to steer them toward the field. Learn more by watching the video below:

15. Tools and Tiaras

Even the very youngest girls deserve exposure to this unique, challenging and growing field of construction. A nonprofit organization that encourages young women in the Mechanical, Industrial, Technical, Trades (MITT) industries, “Tools and Tiaras Inc is committed to advancing the interest of young girls and women who want to pursue non-traditional careers.” The organization connects community members in providing information, mentorship and opportunities to these young women. By “providing the support needed at all stages of their journey,” they offer girls a chance to transform their later lives and careers. Inspiring Females in the Construction Industry

Quiz time. How many of the following famous women in construction are you familiar with?

  • Olive Dennis: The first women to join the American Railway Engineering Association as an engineer
  • Lillian Gilbreth: The “First Lady of Engineering” and women of modern management
  • Mary Kenney Sullivan: The founder of the Women’s Trade Union League
  • Julia Morgan: First female architect licensed by California to practice architecture, designing over 700 buildings
  • Kris Young: First female to serve as President for the Associated General Contractors of America
  • Emily Warren Roebling: Took over as the Chief Engineer of Brooklyn Bridge construction when her husband fell ill

While we could go on and on about incredible females in construction, it’s evident that women’s influence in the past and present day have helped the industry excel substantially. Although it’s hard to deny that the field isn’t still male-dominated, with only 10% of the construction workforce being female, women’s presence in the trades is growing around the world.

Over the last year, we’ve had the fortune of speaking with many women in construction who are breaking down past preconceptions and building incredible things. Sharing everything from how they started in construction to what they love most about working in the sector, watch here to learn why women are both the present and future of the industry.

Newsletter Subscription Banner

Special thanks to contributing author Amanda Fennell.

Grace Ellis

As Manager of Content Marketing Strategy at Autodesk and Editor in Chief of the Digital Builder Blog, Grace has nearly 15 years of experience creating world-class content for technology firms. She has been working within the construction technology space for the last 6+ years and is passionate about empowering industry professionals with cutting-edge tools and leading strategies that improve the quality of their jobs and lives.