06 March 2023
Just 10.9% of the US construction workforce are women. This is even lower than in industries such as transportation, with 24%, and oil & gas, with 15%.
Why is that? How does it hold the sector back? And what can be done to encourage equality?
Women In Construction (WIC) Week 2023 provides an opportunity to seek answers to those questions and to celebrate the achievements of women in our industry.
To that end, we caught up with three inspiring women in construction from different parts of the world. They were kind enough to share their advice, experiences and views on how the industry is changing. One of those women, we are proud to say, was our very own Field Application Engineer (FAE), Sofia Porsborg.
“It is complicated when you are a woman and you want to try to find a job in construction,” says Sofia. She explains that the industry – which is still largely deemed to offer ‘men’s jobs’ – provides limited opportunities for women beyond administrative roles.
As an XYZ Reality FAE and land surveyor engineer, Sofia is living proof that sexist expectations can be overcome. But she says women have to work harder and bring additional skills to the table to be considered for the same roles as men.
“If a company has two candidates’ CVs showing the same experience and same background, but one is a man’s and one a woman’s, the man still stands a better chance.”
Raluca Bahnean, Construction Project Manager at Mace, a premier UK-based construction firm, agrees that misconceptions about gender-based aptitude for administrative roles is a problem. She points out that this bias may go some way to explaining the gender pay gap and female underrepresentation in leadership positions. That’s because administration is naturally a more supportive function and therefore less likely to lead to executive roles down the line.
“Always encountering women in specific jobs leads to unconscious bias – which everybody’s guilty of a little bit,” says Raluca.
Kabri Leherman-Schmid is a Project Superintendent with Hensel Phelps Construction, a large commercial and federal contractor based in the US. She too has had to overcome bias, “mostly along the lines of people questioning my approach to my work,” she says.
“I tend to be highly facilitative and sometimes that has been perceived as a waste of time. But I can prove that the productivity of my crews is significantly higher because I've invested in understanding their perspectives and bringing trade partners together.
“When I'm challenged as a woman – either based on my approach, or because of typical historical cultural biases – that's distracting me from my hundred-million-dollar job site. It’s devaluing what I’m bringing to the table as a manager.”
“I'm lucky enough to be working in a company that gives equal opportunity and concentrates on closing the male and female pay gap,” says Raluca. “However, I'm aware that much work is yet to be done.”
Kabri suggests that disparity for women may be rooted in expectations that exist beyond their professional lives.
“One of the most prominent issues that women in construction face is making decisions about how their personal life relates to their work.
“There still exists a challenge of what it means to have a family, what it means to decide to become a mother, what it means to step back or forward in relationships when careers are a priority.
“We've seen lots of changes in the last few years that show us that the construction industry is trying to be more flexible, trying to listen to the needs of its people. But this is an issue for women in a different way because of what society expects of us outside of the workplace.”
Theoretically, technological progress should help to eradicate hiding places for gender discrimination. For example, as the industry moves towards utilizing more complete, reliable and transparent data, there should be less room for sexist assumptions about performance or ability. Things like quality, accuracy and productivity can be measured and proven, and so individuals are judged not on who they are but on what they can do.
The way that ConTech facilitates better communication is important for similar reasons. “Technology can bridge information between ownership and skilled tradespeople in the field,” says Kabri.
“The way that I've used technology to be an outstanding communicator – and therefore be seen as an excellent woman in my field – has been through things like scheduling tools; utilizing 3D models to demonstrate why I've phased work in a certain way; or using survey technologies to show that we're potholing the right locations for our deep foundation drilled shafts.”
It is reassuring that all three of the women we speak to say that they have seen progress towards gender equality in the construction industry. Sofia describes how in her first internship role she was the only woman in her office. Gradually, the gender balance shifted. But still, the duties expected of men and women were different. She remembers how, when the first woman went out into the field to perform a survey, it felt like a big moment.
Raluca says she is pleased to see the workforce diversifying and more women taking up engineering, executive and practical duties. “One of my favorite things to see,” she says, “is women out onsite working as spotters, in confined spaces or driving trucks.”
Kabri feels a sense of pride in how the industry has grown during her 16-year career. She cites greater awareness of workforce health and mental health issues, as well as progress on general diversity and inclusivity as indicators of how far things have come.
Karbri’s own perspective has changed too. Where once she just wanted to be seen as “one of the guys,” she now sees the impact that her success as a woman can have for others. “I value opportunities to set an example and invite more women in.”
Every conversation with younger women, Kabri explains, provides a chance to let them “see themselves at a different level.”
It would be remiss for us to chat with these amazing women without asking them to share some advice.
“Construction is an unbelievable industry with opportunities I never could have imagined,” Kabri says. “If you tap into wanting to learn every day, you’ll be successful and respected in the eyes of your peers and those who are managing you.”
Raluca says that women should push to explore different avenues. She attributes her own growth and success to the diversity of her experience. “I have been lucky enough to try admin positions, quality, health & safety, project management and now construction management. I believe there’s a position for everyone in construction that suits their own personality.”
For Sofia, success for women is about belief and bravery: “Don’t give up. If you want to do something, just do it. Try it.”