The construction industry is not typically associated with women, who accounted for just 10.9% of industry employment as of last year. But with 7.4 million total workers in the building sector, that means more than 800,000 women work in construction in a wide variety of roles, from finance and credit to operations and labor. And, despite being underrepresented (and in some cases because of it), they are overwhelmingly happy to be there: In a recent survey of 1,001 women working in construction, 78% say they love their jobs.
In the 2021 survey, women shared their experiences in and opinions about working in the industry — here’s what they said.
The share of women in construction
In the survey, 65% of women said that fewer than 1 in 10 of their company’s employees are women. That figure largely matches data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which found that women accounted for 10.9% of the construction industry in 2020.
Overall, women make up a much smaller share of construction employment than in other industries. Across all sectors, women made up 47% of the US workforce in 2018.
For some, working in an industry dominated by men is a source of pride.
“I have been high-fived and applauded for choosing to pursue a career in this type [of] industry when so few women do,” said a project manager for a North Carolina subcontractor.
While women have been gaining ground in the industry, 59% say they work in companies where fewer than 1 in 20 women are in leadership roles.
Working a majority of the time with men was actually a selling point for some of the women in the survey. A manager for a GC in South Carolina said her favorite thing about working in construction was “working with men vs women — less petty office drama.”
A woman who works for a material supplier in Washington agreed. “Honestly…[it’s] easier to work with men for the most part than women.”
Opportunities for women vary widely
By and large, women in the industry believe construction is a good career choice. Only 15% disagree that the construction industry has good opportunities for women.
“There is so much potential for growth,” said an office manager for a GC in Minnesota. “The industry is very behind in technology, but that’s been changing recently. There is also a lot of room, and I think a need for women in this industry. I personally bring both to the table and I love the groundbreaking aspect of being a part of that.”
While some cited opportunities for growth in the industry overall, only 63% say they have the opportunity to advance in their current role. Many of the complaints about the lack of advancement opportunities came from women in small, family-run businesses, which make up a large share of the overall industry.
“At all the jobs I have held in construction the opportunity to advance has been limited because the CFO has always been married to or has been somehow related to the owner of the company,” said an administrative assistant for a subcontractor in South Carolina. “It limits growth in the traditionally women-held jobs in construction.”
Another office manager for a mid-sized subcontractor in Ohio offered this advice: “Be content where you start, because you are probably not going to advance.”
“The glass ceiling is very real for smart women in technical positions,” said a manager for a California GC.
Though many bemoaned the lack of advancement in their companies, others say the opportunity is what you make it.
“This field is excellent for women that are goal-driven and detailed oriented,” said a vice president for a GC in South Carolina. “It doesn’t take long to understand most things in this business. It’s a great opportunity for anyone!”
“Don’t hesitate to ask questions,” said a manager for a Virginia contractor. “The more you learn and understand, the more opportunities you will be able to seek out.”
“If your company offers education for you, take it,” a CFO at a Florida GC said. “You will advance quicker or [it will] prepare you for another position somewhere else.”
“If you are looking for advancement, figure out the holes — the tasks no one wants to do — and become an expert at them,” said a vice president at a Maryland general contractor. “Then learn the better tasks and become the best at those. Then turn around and find another woman looking for her opening and train your successor.”
Limited education and training may also play a role in the lack of advancement opportunities for some. Only 43% of women said they have earned at least a bachelor’s degree or higher. Almost the same number say they haven’t been trained for their current job.
Still, some cited the career opportunities for those without a degree as one of the biggest advantages of working in construction.
“My favorite thing about working in construction is the high earnings potential for someone with my level of education,” said a tradesperson for a Florida subcontractor.
Women feel respected, but not always taken seriously
By the numbers, most women who work in construction say they have the respect of their peers. 8 out of 10 women said they feel that their coworkers and leaders are respectful towards women, and that their ideas and opinions are genuinely considered.
“I believe that though we are not all the way there yet, women are respected in the construction field,” a lawyer for a Michigan contractor said. “My guys are always willing to stop and explain the practical realities so I can better advise them legally.”
However, only 65% of respondents believe that people in leadership at their company listen to women and men equally.
Furthermore, 1 in 3 don’t feel respected and valued as much as their male counterparts. Many women cited being taken seriously as their biggest challenge in the industry.
“I am very good at my job and I do it well,” said one office administrator who works for a general contractor in Minnesota, “but in this industry, I am spoken to like a child a lot of the time. It’s assumed I don’t know what I’m doing and that is very frustrating. I love this industry and I see potential for so much growth and I really want to be a part of that, but it’s going to take a long time to shift the thinking that this is just a man’s industry.”
“The most challenging [thing] is when male customers don’t believe I can perform or am as knowledgeable as a male in my position,” said an estimator in Arizona.
“Women have to prove themselves before they will be taken seriously,” said the president of a subcontracting company in Indiana, “whereas it is assumed men know what they are doing from the start.”
“I’m 6’2″ and I have to really demand the room for people to hear me,” said one estimator from Florida. “If I were a man, it’d just be given.”
Women say they have support, though not always from peers
Within their companies, the women surveyed largely felt supported by the companies they work for. 81% say they have access to the technology they need for their job, and 84% say their company supports professional training opportunities.
Yet when it comes to connecting with someone in their industry for guidance — whether a man or a woman — many of the women surveyed felt under-supported. While 2 out of 3 women working in construction say they would like a mentor, 45% currently don’t have access to one.
“Mentorship is really a key part of the success of women in the industry,” said Anne Pfleger, President of the National Association of Women in Construction. “[Mentoring] can rejuvenate your career at any stage, it improves your personal productivity, it strengthens leadership skills, and it also increases that career satisfaction.”
Most women feel they have the support of their employer as well: 60% say their company would give them time off to participate in a mentoring program.
A number of women commented that the lack of support from other women in the industry is a problem: 10% of women don’t feel like women in construction empower each other.
One Senior Agent for a Florida developer said her least favorite parts of working in construction are “women not supporting women. Men ignoring women. Men asking women for coffee when they walk into a conference room.”
Nearly 63% of women say they don’t have opportunities to network with other women in construction — and 1 in 3 women don’t feel supported by other women in their workplace.
“Other women are threatened by other women in this business,” said one project manager for a California subcontractor. “This makes it more difficult when communicating and succeeding.”
A bookkeeper for a carpentry company in Washington agreed, saying that competition among women in the industry makes them treat each other poorly.
“I find most women feel like they have to throw other women under the bus to make [themselves] look better,” she said.
Women are split on the pay gap in construction
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the pay gap between men and women in construction is the lowest of any US industry, with women earning 99.1% of what men take home. In 2018, women in construction had median weekly earnings of $862, compared to $870 for men.
But in the survey, only half of women say that men and women are paid equally for the same work at their company. That number is even lower among lower-ranking employees: 43% of women in non-executive positions believe that pay is equal.
According to construction labor expert Peter Philips, an economics professor at the University of Utah, and construction labor, a pay gap depends on a variety of factors, including location, job title, and experience.
”Construction workers earn different wages, depending on their craft, on whether they are apprentices or journey workers, and on location,” Philips said in an interview with Construction Dive. “So if you look at Maryland versus California versus Iowa, and if you look at different wages by segment — industrial, heavy commercial, light commercial, residential, retrofit, and remodeling — you get different wages along those different dimensions. Within those dimensions, it usually doesn’t matter if you’re a male or a female or a wooden post.”
While the disagreement on pay disparity may be attributed to job title or location, the lack of transparency when it comes to salary is also a contributing factor.
One assistant project manager for a subcontractor in North Carolina said not knowing whether she’s paid fairly was a challenge. “I have no idea what anyone else in the same position in my company is paid,” she said.
For some women, ‘old boys’ club’ brings discrimination and unwanted attention
For many women, the industry’s stereotype as an “old boys club” is still very real, and leads to differing treatment — and at times, harassment.
“The ‘good old boys club’ still exists in a lot of places throughout the industry,” said an office manager for a Georgia contractor.
An office manager for a general contractor in California says the mentality leads to different treatment of men and women. “My company is a ‘boys club’ and doesn’t offer women the same opportunities as men,” she said. “Men advance faster and are often less qualified.”
Though 82% say it’s a rare occurrence, nearly 1 in 4 say they have received unwanted attention from coworkers or supervisors in their company.
For some women, discrimination and harassment aren’t as big of a problem in the industry as they used to be.
“There is less overt discrimination since I left construction after a decade in the industry,” she said. “But the micro aggression are still there. I am stepping down from my leadership role because the stress of not being heard and the boys club culture is still so prevalent. The only was I could stay is if I made myself smaller and constantly built the guys up making them think I need them to do my job. I’m way past that at this point in my career.”
For an office administrator at a California subcontractor, the level of harassment isn’t equal everywhere.
“My last workplace was a nightmare. Inappropriate and sexist jokes were the norm,” she said. “If we didn’t participate or tried to correct the behavior, we were accused of not having a sense of humor or not being a team player and the behavior and treatment got worse. Having to answer personal questions and tolerate judgment was also ‘normal.’ ‘Why aren’t you married?’ ‘You’d be married if you were (insert 1920s expectation here).’ ‘Gained a little weight, did you?’ ‘Didn’t want to do your hair today?’ ‘You should wear high heels more.’ ‘Are you a feminist?’ ‘Don’t be offended. I was just kidding.’”
From the perspective of one manager for a Maryland subcontractor, the construction industry is much less discriminatory compared to other industries.
“Honestly, I haven’t found any real challenges because I’m a woman,” she said. “I spent 25 years in investment banking and financial advisory roles and found that atmosphere much more discriminating against women.”
Women in construction say they feel they are more likely to receive unwanted attention from customers or clients — 23% say it happens at least occasionally.
“I have been sexually harassed by customers, as well as told ‘I need someone who knows what they are doing,’” said a project manager for a North Carolina subcontractor. “The most challenging part of working in the industry in my opinion is being taken ‘seriously’ in my position. I believe it is a mixture of my age (26) and my gender. These instances are rare, but also off-putting.”
“There are many more aggressive forms of harassment that don’t happen as frequently,” said an engineer in California. “This is a topic that many people don’t respect or acknowledge simply because they feel they aren’t harassing you by simply ‘asking questions.’”
Though more than 4 in 10 women don’t feel comfortable addressing unwanted attention directly, 81% say their supervisor would support them if they reported it.
“In prior companies, I was physically and verbally sexually harassed,” said one woman. “It was instantly addressed as soon as I spoke up.”
Some women prefer to stop talking about gender in construction
While many women in construction say they experience different treatment from their male counterparts, others see conversations about gender as divisive.
The president of a New York contractor said her biggest challenge is “other women who make gender an issue when it is not. Do your job well and you get ahead. If you feel offended all of the time you will not do well. Have some self-awareness and be honest with yourself.”
A manager for a Pennsylvania GC agreed, saying that some women come into the industry with a grudge against men.
“I’ve seen how other women who have sexiest male-bashing views and constantly make an issue of their gender cause a negative environment and make it harder on the rest of us,” she said. “I don’t want to make my gender my only identity.”
One office administrator for an Oklahoma subcontractor said women just have to accept the industry as it is.
“No one discriminates and you trying to make it appear as though it is a problem isn’t going to make it one,” she said. “I get harassed same as every other living human being in this field. Why? Because construction is a field of hard people doing a hard job and it’s just that way. Always was always will be.”
For a manager at an Oklahoma supplier, working in construction is about learning to accept the status quo. “Just smile and pull up your big boy britches if you want to play with the boys,” she said.
Women see a brighter future for construction
Despite facing setbacks based on gender discrimination and otherwise, the majority of women are proud to be a growing force in construction and enjoy their careers. Women will continue to be an important part of the evolution of the construction industry. And they are optimistic about the future: Nearly 70% of women say their role in construction is changing for the better.