PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday June 12th, 2014, 2:57pm

Report: Discrimination Still A Major Employment Barrier For Female Construction Workers

Discrimination against female workers still runs rampant in the construction industry, according to a new report from the National Women's Law Center. Progress Illinois takes a look at the report's findings.

Discrimination remains a key reason women today represent just 2.6 percent of workers in the construction industry, which is nearly the same number as three decades ago, finds a new report from the National Women's Law Center (NWLC).

Just 206,000 women work in U.S. construction and extracted occupations, compared with 7.6 million men. And women of color are even more underrepresented  in construction, which is a relatively highly-paid industry. Out of all U.S. construction workers, 2 percent are white women, 0.4 percent are Hispanic women and  0.2 percent are African-American women, the report showed. 

The report cites sexual harassment, gender stereotypes and a lack of mentors as main factors behind the low percentage of female construction workers and apprentices.

Bob Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, called it disappointing that women remain underrepresented in the construction industry. 

"The progress, in terms of actual numbers, hasn't really been improved much at all," said Bruno, who was not involved with the NWLC report. 

This is especially troubling, Bruno said, because construction trades provide high-paying jobs. If genuine changes were made in the construction industry, Bruno said, and more women were able to enter and remain in the field, "You would be substantially improving the economic well-being of women in society and reducing inequality between men and women," he pointed out. 

Last year, construction workers earned a median hourly wage of $19.13, according to the NWLC report. That's nearly double the median hourly wage of female-dominated professions, such as home health aides and child care workers, the report explains. 

A comparison of weekly median earnings of all full-time workers in the country showed that women typically make 82 percent of what men make per week, according to the report. But in the construction industry, women on a weekly basis make about 89 percent of what their male counterparts earn. The report examined weekly earnings due to the "transient nature" of construction work. 

"There is a much smaller wage gap in construction," said one of the report's authors Neena Chaudhry, NWLC's senior counsel and director of equal opportunities in athletics. "There still is one, but it's smaller and the opportunities [for women] to earn more money for themselves and their families is critical and could really go a long way in terms of providing greater economic security for women."

Bruno said the country has about 1.8 million fewer construction jobs than before the recession, which has led to an increase in competition for available jobs. Additionally, government spending on construction is also down across the country by an average of 8 percent since the recession, he explained, noting that many construction jobs are tied to government-funded developments. 

"Then you add to the fact that the industry obviously still suffers from a male-gendered culture," he said. All these factors combined make "it really hard to create these kind of opportunities for women." 

But Chaudhry stressed that the percentage of women in the construction field has remained low for decades, both in times of recession and prosperity. Also, it is projected that the construction industry will add 1.6 million new jobs between 2012 to 2022, according to the report.

"What's critical is that women are having an equal opportunity to pursue whatever [construction] jobs there are," she said. "It's clear there are women who love what they're doing ... and yet they are having to basically wage a battle to just survive in their field, and it's very sad."

The NWLC report cites a U.S. Department of Labor study from 1999, which showed that 88 percent of women construction workers experienced sexual harassment on the job. Chaudhry said NWLC researchers could not find a more recent study on the topic. Regardless, "It's clear there is a lot of unchecked harassment and other barriers that women are facing," she said.

Mary Battle, a Washington, D.C.-based construction worker of 31 years, said it has been challenging at times to work in the male-dominated industry.

For 28 years, Battle worked in the field paving curbs, sidewalks and alleys. She also built commercial developments. Currently, she serves as financial secretary and business manager at the Operative Plasterers' And Cement Masons' International Association Local 891, a position she has held for the past three years. 

Throughout her career, Battle said she has had to work even harder than her male co-workers.

"All the time you have prove yourself no matter what you're doing in the field, as far as women are concerned," she said. "I don't know what it is about men. I think some of them don't want us out there, but some of them are afraid we're going to take their jobs. We're out here to make a living just like everyone else. We have families just like they have families to feed. This is a job that I chose that I love. I wouldn't have been out there for 28 years if I didn't love the job. I love seeing things come from nothing to something."

When asked if she has been sexually harassed on the job, Battle replied, "Yes, indeed."

"Sexual harassment on the job, off the job — it happens. But you got to know how to handle yourself," she said, adding that if a male co-worker touched her, she would forcefully pull away "to let him know don't touch me." 

"You have to have that tough girl attitude, because if you don't, they'll walk all over you," Battle added. "Most of the time, they called me the 'mean one' on the job. I was considered the mean one."

Discrimination against women in the construction trades often starts in school and continues into employment, according to the report.

"In career and technical education (CTE) programs, young women are often subtly encouraged and explicitly steered into occupations that align with traditional gender stereotypes instead of being encouraged to enter traditionally male programs such as construction," the report states.

Additionally, women are often kept out of the loop when it comes to construction apprenticeship opportunities. And in instances when when women do take part in such programs, they face a number of hurdles, including harassment, that make them less likely than men to finish their apprenticeships. Out of 120,000 apprenticeship agreements between 2006 and 2007, 51 percent of women construction apprentices did not complete their programs, compared with 46 percent of men, according to the report.

Patricia Valoy, from New York City, is one of the women profiled in the report. She left her construction apprenticeship after facing persistent harassment by coworkers.

“Men would stop their work to stare and wolf whistle,” she said. “On a few occasions I got called a ‘bitch’ for refusing to reply to inappropriate remarks. Some men felt the need to give me ‘how to get fit’ advice and make comments about my body."

"Once I was alone in the middle of a storage room when a construction worker blocked the doorway and refused to let me leave unless I accepted his request for a date," Valoy added. "I worked on the site for a year until the stress of constantly being harassed, belittled and intimidated was not worth the effort.” 

Recommendations

There are a variety of steps that should be taken to improve apprenticeship completion rates, Bruno said.

First, apprenticeship programs should better integrate stronger diversity and anti-harassment policies and practices. A brief sexual harassment orientation, for example, is not going to cut it, he said.

"Too many of these trades involve this kind of stand-alone [anti-harassment] presentation," he said. "It doesn't really change anybody's thinking."

More supports should also be put in place to help women complete the programs, such as boosting apprenticeship pay rates and providing free or subsidized daycare onsite when learning is taking place in a classroom, Bruno said.

"If you're really thinking about the situation of that woman when she enters that trade, and you have a full sense of her challenges, you can institute policies and practices that will support her being part of the trade," he said. 

Improving women's participation in the construction industry should also involve a greater focus on programs and policies that encourage female ownership of companies, Bruno added.

"If there were programs and policies that encouraged women to go into this industry or actually become owners, general contractors, there's likely to be more women hired, more women apprentices in construction, and these women would become advocates," for change in the industry, Bruno said. "It's an industry that's owned and operated mostly by men, so doing something on the contractor side, on the ownership side, I think would be a positive step."

Some of the policy recommendations cited in the report to increase female participation in the construction field include:

The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which oversees one-fifth of the civilian workforce, should strengthen its oversight of contractors and  requirements to recruit and increase access for women in construction;

The Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship, which registers apprenticeship programs in all 50 states, should revise its affirmative action regulations to increase the numbers of women and minorities in these programs;

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal laws that prohibit discrimination against job applicants and employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability and genetic information, should increase its enforcement of sexual harassment protections.

“It’s not surprising that the construction trades are sometimes called ‘the industry that time forgot,’" said NWLC Vice President for Education and Employment Fatima Goss Graves. “Thousands of women are already proving their mettle on construction sites across the country. But many of these high paid jobs remain out of reach for women. And for the few who do get hired, their careers are often short-lived as a result of widespread sexual harassment. It’s time for this industry to enter the modern era—to expand apprenticeships and training opportunities for women, hire qualified female workers and enforce a zero tolerance policy against sexual harassment. This would be a win-win strategy for the industry—and for women.”

Image: AP Photo/The Telegraph, John Badman

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