Why aren’t there more women in construction?

Gender-based disparities in pay between men and women persist despite efforts by many people in business and politics, including President Barack Obama, to improve them. This stubborn pay gap isn’t closing as fast as anyone would like.

There are some career fields that have been successful in closing the gap, and surprisingly, construction is one of them. Women out-earn men in several male-dominated construction jobs.

Female craft professionals, construction supervisors, maintenance painters and aircraft and vehicle mechanics earn slightly above the median earnings for both sexes, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey in 2011 said. And according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 40 percent of all female construction craft professionals earn at least $50,000 a year.

The problem is that not that many women take advantage of this opportunity. Construction remains one of the most male-dominated professions left in the United States, just slightly better than the National Football League.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that women hold just 3 percent of the 7 million construction industry jobs in the United States. This isn’t much different than the number of women in construction in the 1970s.

As the economy recovers from the recent recession, and construction jobs are becoming more plentiful, why aren’t more women pursuing opportunities in construction?

Many women never even consider working in construction because of a lack of role models. The current absence of women craft professionals stamp construction as a boys-only club, a stubborn stereotype that isn’t true, but persists.

Other women are simply unaware there is a place for them in construction and that they are welcome in the profession. In the same Women’s Policy Research study, out of 200 women surveyed, only one said she learned anything about careers in construction from a high school counselor. Two others learned about their opportunities at a regional job-training center.

Lack of recruiting and exposure to construction trades plus persistent stereotyping and the lack of role models add up to a serious concern for the construction industry.

The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) is one group doing what it can to change this situation. The problem is not a new one. NAWIC originally began as Women in Construction of Fort Worth, Texas founded by 16 women working in the construction industry in 1953.

The group was so successful, it gained its national charter in 1955 and became the National Association of Women in Construction. Today, NAWIC provides its members with opportunities for professional development, education, networking, leadership training and public service.

In San Diego, the NAWIC chapter hosts an annual event for high school students, “Camp NAWIC,” which exposes young women to careers in construction and encourages them to pursue training.

At this summer’s recent Camp NAWIC, held at the Stanley E. Foster Construction Tech Academy at Kearny High School, high school students took on a wide variety of hands-on projects.

ABC San Diego is a strong supporter of Camp NAWIC. The ABC San Diego Apprenticeship Training Trust conducted an all-day plumbing project for 12 girls interested in construction careers. Instructors and volunteers gave the young women hands-on experience in installing faucets, replacing the fill valve for a toilet, and cutting cast iron pipes. Every project included lessons in safety procedures.

Thanks to the economic recovery, the construction industry nationwide added 20,000 jobs in August, which boosted employment in the industry to a five-year high. At the same time, unemployment among builders and crews fell to its lowest level in seven years, a combination that has builders in some areas delaying or turning away projects because they can’t staff up fast enough.

There has never been a greater opportunity for groups across the construction industry to reach the common goal of advancing the roles of women in the workplace. Industry leaders, educators, career counselors, advocacy groups like NAWIC, ABC San Diego, and parents everywhere need to give young women the opportunity to explore careers in construction. It is a step toward wage equality in the workforce for women while addressing the shortage of skilled craft professionals by attracting more women to construction. It benefits everyone involved.

Smyth is chief financial officer of Sherwood Mechanical and chairman of the Associated Builders and Contractors San Diego Apprenticeship Training Trust board of trustees.

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