Although it is still a predominantly male field, women have a rich, profound history of working in the construction sector. Nevertheless, as with many other male-dominated fields, most of the history and female figures who have been involved in the construction field have been overlooked and hidden from public view. Moreover, times are changing, and women now represent 10.9% of construction workers as more women have begun taking an interest in the trade. Also, we are now in the information age, which means all of these fascinating aspects of history are becoming mainstream knowledge. With that in mind, the following is a closer look at the reflective history of women in construction.
While women are still struggling to get their footing in the construction field, they have been a part of the construction sector since the 13th century. In particular, women were named as ‘laborers,’ and it was said that they were creating structures made of wood and stone. However, it seems that women’s involvement in the construction industry temporarily came to a halt. Either that or this information was purposely omitted; there was no mention of women in construction for the next few centuries.
While it may seem that women have simply chosen to steer clear of the construction field because it is so physically demanding, that may not have been the case. In all actuality, many cultures placed a major stigma on women who chose to venture into construction.
For instance, for hundreds of years, female construction workers were put on a social level that was only slightly higher than that of prostitutes. But unfortunately, these women were doing whatever they had to in order to take care of themselves; most female construction workers were poor, single, without family, or even slaves.
To add insult to injury, according to their society, their unfortunate circumstances were bestowed on them by God. Therefore, women were being ostracized for daring to work in fields that were dominated by men while also being blamed for being in the position that required them to work such a physically demanding job, to begin with. Either way, this seems to be one of the major reasons why women temporarily disappeared from the history books; they were either trying to avoid the field or remain hidden to avoid the stigma. On the other hand, it is also likely that the men who were in charge of creating these history books outright chose to omit them.
American Women in Construction
Several centuries later, American women finally ventured into the sector. Most notably, in 1876, though it certainly did not start that way, Emily Roebling played an essential role in the building of the now famous monument, the Brooklyn Bridge. This is because after taking the time to do the planning and preparation, John A. Roebling passed away from tetanus. This resulted in his son, Washington Roebling, taking on the role of project manager. However, as fate would have it, Washington and over one hundred of his workers developed a condition known as “the bends,” which left him bedridden for the remaining years of his life. This is where Emily, his wife, came to the rescue.
Emily stepped in and was able to take over project management, ensuring that the project could continue. She oversaw the remaining parts of the project until the bridge was complete and did such an impressive job that she was recognized in a dedicated ceremony for the bridge and was even given the honor of being the first person to walk across the now-famous landmark.
Other Notable Figures
Although Emily was one of the first prominent women in construction, she was by no means the last.
Norma Merrick Sklarek
In 1956, Norma Merrick Sklarek became the first African American woman to pass her license exam to officially become an architect. Affectionately known as “the Rosa Parks of Architecture,” Norma has earned a special place in the construction history books. Licensed to work both in New York and California, this bicoastal lady architect eventually became international. Today, she is most recognized for designing structures such as the United States Embassy in Tokyo, Japan, and the Terminal One station at the Los Angeles International Airport.
More impressively, after designing various buildings, she went on to become the first Black woman to own her own architectural practice, along with two other notable women, Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond.
Women in Construction Today
As mentioned, these days, women make up about 10% of the construction field. Although these numbers are somewhat encouraging, it seems that the majority of women in construction are still being hidden. Specifically, only 1 out of every 100 frontline construction jobs are occupied by women. This is still attributed to issues such as unconscious gender biases, negative perceptions of women in the field, a lack of adequate training, and other similar factors. So, despite making major strides in the field, it seems that women are still being discriminated against due to antiquated ideas about women and manual labor.
Nevertheless, the world is changing and evolving at a rapid pace. Although many male-dominated fields are lagging, they are still slowly being thrust into the new, more inclusive world. Fields such as construction are now being studied in an effort to uncover barriers preventing women from thriving in the field. One underlying issue seems to be the culture of toxic masculinity that exists on most work sites. In addition to the long, grueling hours, women may be subjected to mistreatment, and other forms of harassment meant to make them uncomfortable and eventually leave the field. For example, studies have shown that 59% of women between 28 to 40 years old experience sexual harassment while working in the construction field.
Moreover, studies have also shown that although more women are taking construction jobs, many of them are not sticking with these jobs for the long term. This is because, in addition to their duties in the workplace, many women are wives and mothers, which means they are more likely to be bombarded with the majority of unpaid housework after they leave their 9-5 jobs.
Additionally, women are much more likely to be given entry-level positions, regardless of their skill levels and credentials. This causes many women to become deterred as they cannot foresee advancement opportunities. In other words, since there are typically no women in higher-up positions, some women become discouraged and feel they will never be able to get raises and promotions over their male counterparts. Some women also worry that if they receive those raises, they will be subjected to a hostile work environment due to the backlash of being a successful woman in construction.
Despite the existing climate, many are hopeful that the field will soon be much more inclusive. Although it may be more challenging, women can find ways to climb the ladder and achieve longevity in construction. According to Heather Tankersley, co-founder of Tankersley Construction, women should seek out support from those in their personal and professional lives to help them stay focused on their goals in the industry.
On the other hand, Rebecca Remick, the owner of City Homes LLC, asserts that the present labor shortages present a fantastic opportunity for women to enter the field. Either way, we have finally arrived at a time in which large quantities of women may be able to make a widespread and long-term impact in the construction field.