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Equality in the Field: Women in Construction and Plumbing


By Holland Webb, featured writer

In nearly every office, women make up about half the workforce. At most construction sites, however, you might find one woman among 100 men. Twenty years into the 21st century, diversity and equality are two of the most critical concepts in the U.S. workplace, but these ideals have made little headway into blue-collar professions such as construction and plumbing.

Women started to enter the American workforce shortly after the Civil War, and today, they make up 47% of American employees according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Female employees are not equally represented across all fields, however. About 40% work in management or professional jobs, 32% in sales, 21% in service, and just 0.9% in construction, maintenance, and natural resources occupations.

Construction and plumbing are still considered a man's domain with just 1% of construction workers being female, most of whom hold the office jobs. Why are women not interested in construction trades? Not qualified? Not welcome? Do many American women perceive construction and plumbing as non-feminine, and so avoid those roles?

"There’s not just one thing that contributes to the lack of females in the profession," according to Grace Ellis at the Construction Productivity Blog. "Recruitment bias, company cultures where harassment isn’t thoroughly addressed and even reasons as simple as tools and gear not made for women in mind, also all play a critical role in why more women aren’t considering building as a career."

It wasn't always this way.

From Rosie the Riveter to Joe the Plumber: The History of Blue Collar Equality in the U.S.

During World War II, the U.S. faced a severe shortage of industrial laborers. Young men, who previously composed the backbone of this labor force, were fighting in Europe and the Pacific. So the country turned to the women still at home. In 1943, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation unveiled its Rosie the Riveter poster, showing a serious-faced woman dressed in a blue jumpsuit with a red bandana and flexing some serious biceps. Rosie became an icon.

Roughly 35% of American women entered the workforce during World War II, many serving as Rosies -- industrial factory workers. They earned about 50% of a man's wage for their labor, and many were fired after the war. Others left as social pressures changed from the needs of wartime to the needs of a country booming with babies. June

Cleaver clad in pearls and high heels replaced Rosie and her red kerchief as America's ideal woman.
Even the power feminist movement that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s never emphasized women's work in the trades. So as women increasingly entered the workforce, they tended to take jobs as teachers, nurses, secretaries and other pink-collar employment with movement leaders pushing for white-collar opportunities, not blue-collar ones.

Just as more women were heading out to jobs, the prestige of blue-collar professions tanked. Employees in construction drew hourly wages, not salaries, and they worked in dirty, noisy environments, which caused Americans to label these jobs as "bad." The situation didn't shift until 2008 when Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, herself the product of a blue-collar home, introduced America to her campaign standard bearer -- Joe the Plumber, a blue-collar man who, while he couldn't carry Palin's campaign to victory, did reignite a national conversation about industrial work.

Modern Ideas About Equality in the Workplace


Burdened with student loans themselves for college degrees that hadn't propelled them as far as they'd hoped, American parents began encouraging teenagers to consider skilled trades training instead of pricey humanities degrees. A plumber holds a well-paid, recession-proof skill, they said, and a history degree has little utility in the workforce. For many middle-class Americans, the future of staying in the middle-class depended upon industrial jobs, not a college education. However, were parents encouraging their daughters to take this route or just their sons?

When Americans talk positively about equality, they typically mean equality at work not at home. Young Americans, in particular, say they value working with people of other genders, races, religions, and sexual orientations. However, while it was once acceptable to employ a variety of people, many modern Americans expect companies to balance diversity at all levels. It's not enough to hire a person of color and call yourself diverse, for example, if all the employees of color are stuck in low wage jobs. It's not enough for women to work in the construction office, either, if they aren't welcomed and accommodated on the site.

Merging the conversations about blue collar jobs and workplace equity hasn't happened at scale yet. Women still aren't considering, training for, or welcomed in traditionally male settings such as construction sites. But maybe they should be.

Why We Need Women in Construction and Plumbing

Construction companies that are gender diverse are generally more profitable. "According to the Peterson Institute," Grace Ellis wrote, "companies who were in the top 25% in gender diversity of their workforce were 46% more likely to outperform their industry average." Hire more women, make more money.

Women provide a valuable perspective. A gender-diverse workforce benefits from a variety of perspectives. Women often see things men don't, just as men see things women don't.

Single female homeowners feel more comfortable with women service professionals. The number of single female households is substantial, and many unpartnered women feel uncomfortable with a man they don't know coming into their home to work. A qualified woman can provide the same service without making the customer feel ill at ease.

Girls shouldn't miss out on lucrative and exciting career options. Guidance counselors don't often suggest industrial jobs to girls as future careers, but maybe they should. After all, plumbers and construction workers earn strong wages and hold recession-proof skills.

Want to learn more?

Check out this great piece about why NOW is the best time to be a woman in construction from Engineering News Record.

BigRentz has a great infographic about the state of women in construction.

The NAWIC is a great resource for career and education in construction for women.