Career Advice

Supporting Women in Construction, Engineering and Manufacturing
Michelle Stedman posted on June 09, 2017 |
What can your company do to promote more qualified female candidates and foster better retention?

Women face severe underrepresentation in construction, engineering and manufacturing, with just an 8.9 percent share of the total U.S. construction industry alone. Only 1.3 percent of operating engineers and construction equipment operators are women, making these occupations the tenth most male-dominated in the country. The problem is that even when companies in these fields manage to attract women, they often fail to retain them over the long term.

Occupational sectors (such as construction and manufacturing) have been slow to catch up to the transformation that’s been closing the gender gap in many other industries; and it’s going to come back to bite them. Demands for skilled workers are expected to increase significantly in the coming years, and a labor shortage is already apparent in these fields. Women represent an untapped resource that could not only fill these gaps, but add much-needed new and diverse skills to the pool.

It’s no mystery why so few women are choosing (or staying in) jobs in construction, engineering, and manufacturing — it’s not only difficult for women to move up in these industries, but harmful and outdated public perceptions often leave them working twice as hard just to prove they’re capable of the job. What’s often less clear to business leaders, though, is how to combat the issues driving women away from this sector.

What can your company do to promote more qualified female candidates and foster better retention once they’re hired?

As just one company, you can’t expect to solve the gap alone; but you can make your company more gender inclusive, and help move the entire industry in the right direction.

The Multi-Layered Problem

Ceilings and Walls Obstruct Women from Career Advancement

Two major obstacles loom at the forefront of the gender gap: the glass wall and the glass ceiling. The former refers to occupational gender segregation — women are more likely to work in jobs in administration or that require higher education (i.e. a degree), while men are more likely to work in jobs that require skills training. The latter refers to the way representation for women decreases in positions higher up the construction, engineering and manufacturing chain. Women occupy junior roles in high and low status professions alike, but are often prevented from progressing further up the ladder. 

A study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and JPMorgan Chase & Co. took a close look at females in middle-skill jobs, such as construction workers and machinists. The study revealed that although women make up 83 percent of the workforce for jobs that pay under $30,000 a year, they make up only 36 percent of the workforce for jobs that pay $35,000 and over. That’s one steep ladder.

Overcoming Public Image Requires Women to Work Twice as Hard

Jobs in the construction field are perceived as requiring immense strength and demanding long, unpredictable hours in inclement weather; traits that society continues to connect to male-dominated skills. In an industry where many people still believe women are incapable of performing construction tasks adequately, it’s no wonder some women feel turned away by the expectation of a hostile work environment.

Some women are making amazing strides towards changing public opinion — take civil engineer Jacque Hinman, who stood up to a culture of hostility very early in her career, as the only woman on her job site. Hinman went on to become president of the International Division of construction and engineering company CH2M Hill, where she continues to push for the advancement of women in the field. California-based nonprofit WINTER (Women In Non-Traditional Employment Roles) seeks to foster more women like Hinman, by offering an impressive 10-week program to train women for jobs as electricians, construction workers and other occupational roles.

Still, it’s no surprise that most women aren’t interested in working at jobs where they may have to put in twice as much effort, simply to prove they’re as capable as their coworkers.

Poor Work-Life Balance is a Huge Drawback

The desire for a healthy work-life balance isn’t unique to women — but for an industry that has long struggled to attract women to the field, lack of work-life balance presents yet another reason for women to look elsewhere. The construction industry, specifically, has grappled with the perception that long hours, grueling work and shifting site locations leave little room for employees to build any work-life balance. To top it off, the United States remains woefully behind when it comes to maternity benefits; and construction, engineering and manufacturing companies often fare the worst in this regard.

With today’s workforce putting a high value on work-life balance, women and men alike are more likely to seek companies that offer flexibility and support for employees throughout major life events, retirement and future planning and caring for family members.

Business leaders must invest resources towards offsetting these challenges, in order to attract a massive segment of the population that has historically found these jobs uninviting.

How to Make Construction, Engineering and Manufacturing Workplaces More Welcoming for Women

1. Improve Your Company’s Work-Life Balance

Your company can lead the charge to repair the industry’s leaky pipeline by offering (and advertising) better benefits to support employees in their personal lives. This may mean providing flexible work hours for employees during major life events, job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act or financial support for those who need to hire child or senior care.

The opportunity for a healthy work-life balance will help to attract more women to your company during hiring and recruiting. You’ll also find higher retention rates when women (and men) at your company trust they’ll be supported if they experience family or personal strain, health issues or decide to have children.

Some women who choose to have kids, such as construction administrator Taylor Richendrfer, find they have ample maternity leave to take — but without any pay during that time, they can’t afford to support their families. Still others find it difficult emotionally and physically to transition back to the demands of a full time work schedule only months after having a baby. As a result, they may choose to move on to another industry — a costly reality for your company, since recruiting and training new employees is more expensive than working to retain old ones.

Employers should make particular efforts to encourage their female employees to stay on after maternity leave; this may involve flexible or part-time hours during the transition back to work, and retraining to bring an employee’s job skills back up to par after time away.

2. Break Down Barriers with Strategic Marketing

Utilize your company’s marketing and recruiting teams to shift the narrative about jobs in construction and related fields. Focusing on how jobs in occupational sectors serve others — what they are for, rather than what they do — can go a long way towards changing public perception of these industries.

Raising awareness about the wide variety of jobs involved in construction, manufacturing and engineering is essential for your recruiting efforts. Most people — men and women alike — remain unaware of the changes these industries have gone through, and the diverse range of employment options and strong career paths that are available. Technology has reshaped the skill sets required for jobs in construction and manufacturing; intelligence and problem solving skills now carry just as much (if not more) weight than simple brute strength.

Aside from promoting public re-education across the board, your HR representatives can make it a priority to inform women of open positions that fit their skill sets. Even better, your company can offer professional development opportunities, giving women access to the training they need to make lateral or upward moves. Allow candidates to schedule one-on-one-meetings with your HR team, aimed at developing their career paths and advising them for future success.

3. Invest in Community Building and Mentorship

Your company can do a lot to attract women to the construction, manufacturing and engineering industries — but it will all be for nothing if companies don’t work to build a supportive community, in order to retain female employees once they’ve been hired. For instance, your HR department can offer leadership seminars and workshops geared directly towards women and the specific issues they face.

Upper management should play a key role in fostering a culture of respect, kindness and cooperation in the workplace — this means encouraging and responding to employee feedback (both good and bad), rewarding teamwork and enforcing zero tolerance for harassment at work.

Consider setting up a mentorship program at your company, in which each new hire is paired with a more seasoned co-worker. Successful apprentices tend to attribute their success to the person who mentored them, enhancing both team culture and career advancement; this model taps into the what for aspect these jobs are so sorely lacking.

Simply put: a diverse workforce is a competitive and economically successful workforce, and the construction, engineering and manufacturing industries can no longer afford to ignore this fact.

About the Author

Michelle Stedman is Vice President of Operations for BirdDogHR, with a background in corporate recruiting and agency staffing. A published author and frequent webinar speaker, Michelle was a District Manager for Kelly Services leading a large team of recruitment professionals as well serving as a corporate recruiter for a Fortune 100 company.

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