Women are changing the face of the construction industry
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women made up only 8.9 percent of the almost 10 million people working in the construction industry as of 2014. While that may be low for this day and age, consider this – total number of women in the industry has actually grown by more than 80% in the last 30 years.
Philip Kenney, president of F.A. Wilhelm Construction, said, “Looking back decades ago, the only female you’d find at a construction company was the one that greeted you at the front door. Everyone else in the office was a male, generally. Now, we have a better mix.”
Kenney said companies need to embrace diversity in order to respond to changing demographics that are and will continue to affect construction going forward. “We need to get out in front of that for the future of the industry,” he said.
F.A. Wilhelm Construction leads the way in its commitment to diversity. In the first of its three-part series on diversity in the construction industry, Wilhelm examined cultural diversity in construction, exploring the benefits and challenges of building a more ethnically and culturally diverse workforce. In this article, four women on the Wilhelm Team share their thoughts on gender diversity in construction and how women are changing the face of the industry.
When Mary Minor, a safety coordinator for F.A. Wilhelm Construction first started in the business 16 years ago, seeing a woman on the construction site was an extremely rare occurrence. “Back in the day, a lot of the older gentleman didn’t think a woman had any place on the work site,” Minor said. “That used to be a huge challenge for me because they didn’t think I should be out here. That’s just the way it was.”
April Parsley, Vice President of Corporate Marketing for Wilhelm, explained that traditionally, pulling from a diverse work force has been difficult, in part, because of the lack of diversity available in construction trades. “It’s a complex issue,” she said.
This rings true to Mandi Welch, a business development manager at F.A. Wilhelm Construction. Growing up with a dad who worked in construction she spent a lot of time around his fellow union workers. And, none of them were women. “Back then,” Welch said, “it was unheard of to have women work in construction, except for office related duties.” She said, “I think it was due to the stigma that construction required massive amounts of strength as well as being thought of as a dangerous trade – at least more dangerous than desk work.”
Minor and Welch both said that there still isn’t a lot of women on construction sites but that’s beginning to change. “A lot of those older people are retiring,” Minor said. “For the newcomers out here, it’s more normal now for them to see women in these roles.”
Attitudes about women in the field appear to be changing, too. Minor said she doesn’t meet the same resistance she did earlier in her career. “Being a female out here,” she said, “the majority of the men, they listen to me, and they respect me.” She does get pushback from time to time. But, she said it’s not a gender thing. “They push back on men, too,” she said and then with a bit of a laugh added, “They’re just a little more polite with me because I’m a woman.”
Rachel Hobson, a risk manager with Wilhelm said she would like to see more women in the field. ”I think it would be good to have more women on site because they have different perspectives,” Hobson said, “Different ways to solve problems.”
Welch believes that emphasizing the demand for people with skills in the trades and showing that they can offer a rewarding career is one way to get more women into the field. “I think showing longevity in a trade would get all people more excited and involved.”
Parsley said that mentorship is important too. And, when it comes to great mentors for women in the construction industry, she said they don’t necessarily have to be women. “I’ve certainly been influenced and supported by strong women leaders,” she said, “But, the two mentors that have helped me most in my career have been men.”
Hobson said she’s noticed a marked increase in the number of women entering the industry since starting her career at Wilhelm just three years ago. She said the industry as a whole is opening up to different people and is becoming more aware of what women bring to the table. She added that at Wilhelm, this is reflected in the company’s recruiting practices. “It’s about casting a wider net when recruiting.”
Welch agreed, saying that attracting a diverse work force has been a high priority for Wilhelm the entire time she’s been with the company. “During the time I was helping Wilhelm bring on more talent to keep up with the needs of our industry, it was quite impressive to see how many females occupied the candidate pool – I’m sure much more than even 10 years ago if I were to have been searching for the same type of talent back then.”
Welch said women also now occupy higher positions within her company, taking on roles like project management, preconstruction and estimating. “We also have a very strong accounting and marketing department at Wilhelm, both of which are largely made up of very strong, smart women.”
Parsley said that diversity is not only good for the industry but necessary in order to be responsive to client needs. “Buyers are changing, too,” she said. “We’re building for an increasingly diverse public. So, our buildings have to work for all kinds of people,” Parsley said, “Because we’re building things like schools and hospitals, it’s important to make sure we talk to a lot of different people to understand their needs and perspectives.” That’s easier to do when you’re working with a more diverse group of people, Parsley said. ”The clients benefit, and we benefit, too.”
Parsley said one of the biggest benefits of fostering diversity in the workplace is creativity of thought. “I work with a lot of different teams every day. Part of my job is to mold creative thinking. That’s harder to do when you’re working with people who all think alike.
In order to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce, Parsley said a company needs to be committed to creating a culture of diversity. “Without executive leadership buying in, it’s hard to achieve meaningful change,” she said. Parsley admits that Wilhelm is probably a bit of an anomaly in the industry where diversity is concerned. She said she feels very fortunate to be a part of a company that has embraced it so fully.
Welch does, too. “The world is changing,” Welch said, “especially in the way we view women. Luckily I work with many people who are keeping up with that change.”