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The world is talking about women in the workplace thanks to movements such as #metoo. Women of color who work in construction or trade industries make 30% more than they would as administrative assistants, child care providers or domestic help (all industries with a prevalence of women of color). Similarly, research by McKinsey and Company has found that diverse executive teams increase productivity by 21%. Diversity is a win-win for everyone involved.

So, why is it that less than 10% of the construction industry is composed of women with the number of women of color is even lower still? Why are women only 2% of craft trades?

The need for labor in the construction industry has never been greater, and women of color can help address the gaps in the workforce. Similarly, women of color find promise in the construction industry. One woman of color interviewed for this article stated: “It was a good choice for me. I did not need a college degree and when I came out of the military, this was the best option. I’ve done well but it hasn’t been easy being in this job.”

The National Association of Black Women in Construction highlights the success stories of women who have started their own firms and provides a support system to help navigate the challenges.

Challenges for women of color are two-fold as they face sexism and racism. This type of discrimination is found in formal policies but is more prevalent in informal workplace environments. Incidences of negative comments, jokes or worseharassment and assaultare some of the things that women of color face on the job. Other challenges include not knowing how to navigate the system or not being given the same experiences.

However, there are promising strides occurring towards equity and inclusion. For instance, construction is one industry where the wage gap between men and women is not as wide as in other fields. There is also a strong move by female construction executives to increase potential areas of growth.

The industry is already beginning to address these barriers and challenges for women of color. Research conducted by Jobs With Justice found in their 2016 report, Building Career Opportunities for Women and People of Color: Breakthroughs in Construction, that apprenticeship programs and other career launching prospects present “tremendous opportunities in raising the wealth within communities of color and women-led households.” Apprenticeship programs allow women of color and companies to create relationships that allow for teaching and training in positions that have the potential to lead to employment. This report also indicates that construction companies can partner with schools to increase apprenticeship program participation. Currently, most apprenticeships are in crafts but can expand to management and technology.

The report also acknowledges the difficulty that exists with ensuring inclusion of women—particularly women of color. Therefore, inclusion must be planned for rather than treated as a byproduct. This includes slating topics pertaining to inclusion early in the project pipeline and holding all stakeholders accountable for seeing the goals through.

Thankfully, maintaining accountability is simpler with construction technology. For instance, financial and workforce management can include diversity in their compliance standards and not pay out if it these goals are not met. Stakeholders should “secure commitment” in explicit language. Likewise, the project vision and troubleshooting strategies for when progress slips should also be in writing and agreed to by everyone.

The power of language in construction should not be underestimated. A Harvard Business Review article, “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers,” points to those in leadership and senior positions as the gatekeepers for inclusion because they have a literal hand in drafting much of what male-dominated industries like construction look like. Job descriptions, job searches and interviewing are all up to managers. Men will tend to apply even if they do not meet all qualifications whereas women may hold back. These type of gender dynamics can be included thoughtfully in outreach and recruitment, then continued from the boardroom to the jobsite.

Once employed, construction executives should actively create environments that are not only inclusive but are supportive and encouraging: for instance, mentorship programs, spaces where women can openly discuss their experiences and, of course, access to further opportunities. Even if an organization presently lacks women of color, all executives can play an active role in sparking discussion by identifying and addressing hostile work environments and practices for women and minorities.

Women of color should also work on ways to empower themselves. Future For Us, an organization aimed at closing the pay and opportunity gap or women of color, offers these suggestions:

  1. Women of color should build their personal “Board of Directors” composed of mentors, advisors, friends and role models who will be 100% honest with them to help them navigate through blind spots and decisions.
  2. The work-life balance is a real challenge that women of color have to be prepared for as many of them are the main bread winners for their families. They should have realistic expectations for both and be okay with the balance being tilted if it has to be.
  3. Self-advocacy is important so women of color need to learn that skill as they would any other one. The ability to find your voice and understand your value and purpose is invaluable.

Increasing diversity in construction is the way of the future that benefits the industry and the women of color that are employed. Creating opportunities for discussion around inclusion and representation is leading with diversity. By having these conversations early—and earnestly—the construction industry will become a possible path to success for women of color.


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