Piling Canada

Building a Better Industry for Women

This is what women say they really need in the construction industry
Written by Ligia Braidotti
May 2024

While construction companies have come a long way in hiring women, many of the efforts used to attract this demographic to the industry are not enough to make them stay.

Build Better, a report published by Ambition Theory and the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), strives to answer three important questions: are women getting what they want in the construction sector? Will they stay in the industry? What will it take to keep them?

The 2023 report focuses on what women really want from their employers – work-life balance and career advancement opportunities. These steps can have a big impact on retaining women in the industry and don’t require huge investments. Ambition Theory and NCCER got feedback from 770 women in construction, spanning sectors, roles, ages and years of experience.

Today, women account for 11 per cent of construction employees in the United States, with only four per cent working specifically in the trades. In Canada, the number is slightly higher with 13 per cent of women working in construction and 4.7 per cent of women in the trades. The report’s findings show that women are more interested in opportunities that go beyond their salary. While, at first, income is an important and attractive aspect of the job, the report suggests women with more than one year of experience in the industry seek career advancement opportunities rather than higher pay.

Research has shown that while men are promoted based on potential, women are promoted based on experience, and they are expected to have much more experience than men before they receive an opportunity to advance their careers.

“Women in the construction industry want to see that there is a clear path toward advancing their careers and growing professionally,” stated the report.

Moreover, women are looking to become leaders in the industry. The report shows that 88 per cent of women in construction already do or would like to occupy a leadership role.

Pioneering women in the industry lead change by advocating progress and setting examples for future generations. Their grassroots efforts, along with supportive allies, attract more women to the industry and foster inclusivity and support.

Gender disparity demands universal acknowledgment and action. Numerous companies are now aligning, witnessing more leaders assuming responsibility. They acknowledge the industry’s loss of innovative ideas due to women’s underrepresentation and seek improvement measures.

But why is this not happening more often? According to the Build Better report, research has shown that while men are promoted based on potential, women are promoted based on experience, and they are expected to have much more experience than men before they receive an opportunity to advance their careers.

Scarce representation within the industry presents challenges for women to envision their career progression. Women are often required to accumulate significantly more experience than their male counterparts before being afforded opportunities for advancement.

“Women in construction are often told to get more field experience and that we should know how to do every task and operate every piece of equipment before we can become a manager, even though men aren’t expected to prove they can do this before they’re promoted,” one survey participant said.

Construction workers looking at technical drawings

For a long time, women have been told that mentorship is the answer for their career advancement. While mentorship helps people learn a lot on the job, connect with their colleagues and be more engaged at work, it fails to help women advance their careers. The report suggests women need advocates who are willing to open doors to new opportunities and trust women with more complex projects.

What women really need is sponsorship.

Sponsorship is the answer

Sponsorship involves offering opportunities and exposure to assist someone in advancing their career. It is about helping them to learn while navigating challenges and supporting them as they push beyond their comfort zones to enhance their skills. Moreover, it entails introducing individuals to networks and experiences that showcase and reward their strengths and capabilities.

According to the report, women who benefit from sponsorship at work have someone who:

  • Puts their reputation on the line for them
  • Entrusts them with high-profile tasks
  • Introduces them to influential stakeholders
  • Presents them with high-visibility opportunities
  • Invites them to meetings that connect them with individuals who can facilitate their career growth
  • Advocates on their behalf for career development and promotions

In a sponsorship, the senior and junior person need to take action together. Participants said they want sponsors who trust they can and will do the job.

Effective sponsorship requires a cultural shift rather than a sign-up sheet or formal contracts. The report suggests companies start by altering mindsets at the top and encouraging leaders to identify women with leadership potential and offering them exposure to expand their skill sets. This can be done informally or through formal training workshops.

Acknowledging the disparity in mentorship’s effectiveness for women compared to men drives meaningful change. Responsibility for addressing gender inequities shouldn’t solely fall on women – everyone in the organization must be empowered to act. Companies should educate employees about the challenges women face and how they can contribute to fostering inclusivity. By involving everyone, organizations promote gender diversity and inclusion, ensuring a more equitable workplace for all.

Women want work-life balance

When the word “flexibility” comes up in a work environment, many people immediately think of working from home. However, this is a very narrow definition and not necessarily true for women in construction.

Women in this industry are showing signs of burn-out more often because they tend to carry more of the load at home. During the survey, work-life balance showed up as the top reason why a woman would take a certain job.

Forty-six per cent of the women surveyed said they don’t have flexible work options at their organizations. That number is even lower for women working in site management (44 per cent) and for craft professionals (35 per cent). Fifty-seven per cent of women in craft professional roles reported they get no pay for time off and 25 per cent reported they have faced disciplinary action for missing work due to family or personal situations.

When the word “flexibility” comes up in a work environment, many people immediately think of working from home. However, this is a very narrow definition and not necessarily true.

Women don’t want to face pressure for working overtime or choosing between spending time with their families and being respected at work. Companies that offer flexible work options ensure that women have work-life balance, a factor that the report shows determines if a woman will take the job or continue in her role.

Achieving work-life balance for women in construction requires understanding current practices and implementing specific changes. Companies can begin by:

  • Assessing employees’ comfort with requesting time off and understanding their flexibility needs, especially for field staff
  • Considering adjusting work hours and offering paid time off for both office and field employees
  • Evaluating overtime policies to ensure they don’t adversely affect morale
  • Exploring childcare support options as a benefit
  • Aligning changes with business objectives to build a compelling case for flexibility
  • Sharing the vision for change with the entire organization, focusing on managers who will implement policies

Investing in training

Recognizing gender disparities also includes understanding that current training opportunities may not have the same impact and effect on women as for men. The report suggests “offering training designed to address the barriers and challenges women in the industry face is essential for change.”

The report states that the national estimate of women enrolled in secondary and post-secondary construction-based programs is between 10 to 20 per cent. Companies that offer learning opportunities might have more luck with women applying for jobs.

Building Better reveals that for women who have more than a year of experience, a “clear path for career advancement” is essential when seeking jobs. Investing in tailored training demonstrates commitment to women’s development and advancement. Implementing such programs is vital for companies aiming to attract, retain and promote women into leadership roles.

For both small and large contractors, the report shows there are practical training solutions to enhance the participation of tradeswomen within their organizations:

  • Use NCCER’s comprehensive curriculum, tailored to various trades and adaptable to the company’s requirements
  • Collaborate with accredited partners nationwide for short-term training, certificate programs and apprenticeships, if internal bandwidth is limited
  • Offer flexible and supportive training programs for field staff, including considerations for travel time and schedule adjustments
  • Provide hands-on practice for effective field personnel training, as it enhances learning and loyalty
  • Implement on-the-job training and sponsorship programs to support employees’ successful transition into advanced roles

Category: Business

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.

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