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

“Be brave. It’s hard to walk into a room full of men and be the only woman there. But you can do it. Then, over time, they get used to you, they respect you. If they don’t–make sure they do.”

Ambra Melendez is an ironworker, a woman who has made a successful career in one of the rough and tumble construction trades traditionally populated exclusively by men. She’s made it in this career despite substantial obstacles along the way.

She’s also one of the stars of an upcoming documentary featuring women in construction like her, called Hard Hatted Woman, directed by Lorien Barlow.

Barlow says she was inspired to make the film by the women themselves.

“When I learned about these tradeswomen’s stories, and the rich history of these inspiring  women with guts and grit, I was so in love with their story, and I wanted to know more. But there were maybe two books on the topic, and one or two articles–no movies, no documentaries,” she says. “We celebrate pioneers in all these other fields, but we don’t celebrate these women who are literally on the last frontier, the industry more male dominated than any other. I wanted to tell these women’s stories because they deserve that spotlight.”

Barlow says that while the stories are unique and compelling, almost any woman can relate to them. Many women, she says, have a memory of wanting to do what the boys were doing, and being denied that.

“I felt a really strong kinship to these women, and I was inspired by their gumption,” she says.

Yet despite the hard work and powerful example of these women and the benefits of the career, the trades have failed to attract significant numbers of women, even today. As the construction industry has become more diverse, most of that progress has been confined to work in the office and management roles. Of the commonly cited 9% of construction workers who are women, very few work in the trades.

In fact, OSHA reports cite less than 3% of women enter into the construction trades. However, with more exposure to the amazing work these women do, plus increasing measures to ensure the safety and health of women on the job site, we hope this number will rise.

“Be brave. It’s hard to walk into a room full of men and be the only woman there. But you can do it. Then, over time, they get used to you, they respect you. If they don’t–make sure they do.”

Ambra Melendez

 

Why The Trades Aren’t Already More Diverse

women-in-construction-2019-body-2Women need to know, in Melendez’s words, that they “have as much a right on the job site as anyone.”

 

On the whole, a career in construction 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?

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 a 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 job site as anyone.”

Barlow says that all of the women she’s worked with in 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 has 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 job site. 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 job site, 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, personal protective equipment, or PPE. 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 Diversity in the Trades

women-in-construction-2019-body-1 The first step GCs can take to increase diversity is to create a safe and inclusive culture

 

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 job sites is lack of clean, accessible sanitation facilities, which can be a health hazard.

Third, says Barlow, companies need to take women’s safety on the job site seriously. She remembers one job site 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 job sites 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.

 

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Why Diversity Matters

“When the job site 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 job site, 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 job site, 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.

 



 

 

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