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Advancing Women in Construction Through Safety

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Promoting workplace safety: Empowering women in the construction industry

While the construction industry has seen an increase in participation by women in the labor force within the last 10 years, women still represent just 4% of trade/craft workers and 11% of the overall construction workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

We need more women in construction across all roles. With more than one-third of the industry workforce over the age of 50 and approximately one-third of the workforce retiring by 2026, the solution is clear: we need to tap into this massively underrepresented half of the working population.  

Related: Number of Women in Construction is Growing

However, it’s not as simple as doubling down on our recruiting and retention efforts. If we want to cultivate a sustainable workforce long-term, we need to examine the systems that have historically hindered efforts by women to turn construction into a long-lasting, successful career. This is a high-priority initiative at Mortenson. In my role as safety director, I have the opportunity to look at this issue through the lens of safety, and more specifically, how we can prioritize both physical and psychological safety for our entire workforce.  

Changing perceptions: Physical safety

Physical safety is a priority for any construction job, and technological advancements have demonstrably improved worker safety and continue to evolve. The preconception that a person must be able to safely lift 100 pounds over their head to contribute on a job site is antiquated, as innovations in construction technology allow people of varied physical capabilities to work successfully on site, thus extending opportunities to more on the job site.  

As women enter the construction field in higher numbers, attention must be paid to safety concerns specific to them, in addition to the hazards faced by all construction workers. One issue across the industry is that PPE is often sized based on the average male body, which can leave women without proper protection. Having access to protective gear that fits snugly and correctly is key for women in the construction industry for obvious reasons.  

Related: Women in Green Construction – Promoting a Sustainable Career

Improving psychological safety for women

With a prevalent history of sexism and harassment on construction job sites, the industry has traditionally been seen as less-than-welcoming for women, often deterring them from pursuing or staying in construction careers. This can foster an undesirable work environment for women, where barriers can arise in everything from receiving fair and proper training to comfort in reporting inappropriate or hostile work behavior. 

This environment can also lead to a common barrier for advancing women in craft positions: imbalances in task assignments and being confined to ‘light’ duties like sweeping or holding signs. This limits women’s opportunities to acquire essential skills for advanced craft positions. Opportunities for advancement are pivotal to not only recruitment but to retention, ultimately paving the way for higher paying and more fulfilling roles. 

It is not solely the job of women to advocate for one another; we need allies throughout the industry at all levels who leverage their voices, advantages and assets to drive toward solutions for all. Addressing these challenges collectively is crucial not only for attracting more women to the industry but, more importantly, for ensuring that they thrive and contribute meaningfully to its advancement. From mentorship and training programs to affinity groups and career mapping, meaningful steps are being taken by companies that recognize the opportunity that comes with the imperative to diversify.  

Author

  • Kathy Freeman

    Kathy Freeman is safety director for Mortenson’s Denver Operating Group, providing leadership and oversight of Mortenson’s Zero Injury Safety program and implementing strategies and resources aimed at supporting project teams with site-specific safety measures. While overseeing company safety directives, she also leads the continued education of all Mortenson Denver team, reinforcing the company's culture of safety.

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