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Creating a Construction Workplace Where Women Can Succeed

The construction industry is faced with a significant shortage of employees ranging from craft workers to safety professionals, with the problem expected to become much worse. In order to attract women to construction, the industry must create a workplace where they can succeed.

Addressing factors that affect women’s success will improve the overall operation for men and women. It is just not about “political correctness.” It would behoove employers to encourage women to pursue skilled crafts and to take steps to improve their chances of success.

Avoid Generalizations

Generalizations get employers sued. Do not automatically assume a woman cannot perform certain tasks or would be uncomfortable in a certain setting. Maybe the candidate cannot perform some of the physical tasks, but engage in a defensible individualized analysis before making that conclusion.

Because of Americans with Disabilities Act and workers’ compensation concerns, employers should apply an individualized analysis of an employee’s ability to perform the essential functions of a job. In order to perform an objective analysis, one must have accurate (not speculative or unrealistic) job descriptions.

Culture

Women may be offended by construction workplace banter and behavior. Women cannot just be told to “toughen up” or “let it roll off their backs.” Female employees who give as much as they take can be a problem as well. Behavior escalates, so if women act as crudely as the men, the banter and horseplay may escalate to truly outrageous actions.

Keep in mind that construction employers are seeing an increase in claims by men stemming from bullying and crude and mean-spirited horseplay. Males increasingly expect a different environment than in the past. Horseplay is an everyday occurrence on a construction site. However, analysis of these bullying and harassment-driven legal claims shows an escalation over time to a continuous mean-spirited attack.

The obvious solution is to catch teasing and horseplay before it progresses to harassment or intimidation. The not-so-obvious answer is how to do so. Educate employees. Give them examples of how they may be personally liable when behavior goes too far. Emphasize that just because one employee dishes it out, does not mean that the recipient can or should tease back, nor does the recipient have to endure harassment. The problem arises when one gives that advice to someone who is overly sensitive or is a “walking lawsuit.” Employers and supervisors should think about their actions and words and how a jury might perceive them. Explanations such as, “you had to be there” or “boys will be boys,” don’t work. Even winning a lawsuit or undergoing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs investigation costs money.

Bathrooms

OSHA standard 1926.51 requires employers to provide accessible sanitary facilities for all personnel and to ensure that these facilities are maintained in an appropriately clean and sanitary condition. While employers may not be expressly required to provide separate portable toilets for women, it is still a good idea. If not, make sure that there are an adequate number of clean facilities and that hand sanitizer is available. Men appreciate those same things. If the site operates at night, ensure that facilities are in an open and well-lit area. Not providing adequate facilities can be the basis for a discrimination or harassment complaint:

The OFCCP found that the contractor did not provide adequate restroom facilities for female employees. At times, the contractor provided no restrooms for women, and female employees were forced to relieve themselves outdoors, even in the presence of male colleagues. When a restroom was available, it was not separate from the men’s restroom and was not clean. Investigators also found that female workers were subjected to unwelcome, sexually charged comments, teasing, jokes and pressure to go out on dates.

Some contractors erroneously assume that all construction sites are under OSHA’s rules for “mobile crews,” which require “having transportation readily available to nearby toilet facilities.”  OSHA’s 2005 interpretation defines “Mobile Crews” as “workers who continually or frequently move from jobsite to jobsite on a daily or hourly basis.” Workers who report to a conventional construction project, where they work for more extended periods of time (days, weeks, or longer), are not “mobile crews” for purposes of the sanitation standard, so adequate facilities must be provided.

Personal Protective Equipment and Work Practices

Personal protective equipment (PPE) present unique challenges for women. Poor fitting fall protection gear can gravely injure men and women. Make sure that gear properly fits women, as well as unusually small or overweight men. Check gloves and reflective vests. A woman’s size and physiology also may necessitate more “ergonomic” analysis or even different tools.

Most training is not provided in a classroom setting. New employees learn from more senior employees. Women have reported that they receive fewer practical tips and ways to perform tasks more easily than new male workers. It’s already hard to ensure consistent mentoring and training, and this knowledge transfer is more difficult from female workers. Build a culture in which employees will raise safety and work concerns to supervisors. Female workers must feel comfortable raising concerns unique to women.

Views from the Site

Consider these comments and recommendations from successful woman in the industry:

  • Treat women as if they have a brain, as if they can perform physical work and as if they can understand drawings and know how to signal cranes.
  • As a manager, I’m often asked in meetings if I can take notes. Women do not have a special gene or hormones for “taking meeting minutes.”
  • As a manager, if I express an opinion, don’t discount it until a male colleague makes the same suggestion.
  • I see tradeswomen, especially apprentices, performing menial tasks and running errands when their apprentice (male) counterparts are actually getting hands-on experience.
  • Giving women an opportunity to excel is important; we all have to start somewhere, and we’ll all make mistakes. Mentor women so that they don’t make critical mistakes. Don’t assume that because one woman couldn’t make it that no woman will succeed.
  • Within one well-run company, in 15 years, I have not met a woman who has been asked to be a foreman, GF or superintendent. I know they’re out there, but they have to be given the opportunity to be developed and to try out for the position.
  • Don’t assume that because a woman is of child-bearing years that she will not make a great leader in the trades or in the professional side of construction. Offer her the same opportunities – if she turns them down, then so be it. But it has to be offered.

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