Women Want to Work Construction. Let's Help Them Get Jobs.

Nov 4, 2010Brigid OFarrell

woman-construction-worker-150After the crash, the downturn was dubbed a "mancession." As the meme continues to circulate, we asked leading thinkers to help us sort fact from fiction. Are men suffering more than women in a weak economy? Is Washington doing enough to address female unemployment? How do we ensure a jobs agenda that's fair and equitable? In the final part of our series, "The Myth of the Mancession? Women & the Jobs Crisis", Brigid O'Farrell calls for a full employment policy that benefits women ready to work in non-traditional trades.

In this Great Recession, there is no question that the construction industry has been hard hit. Unemployment for construction occupations was almost 20% last year and reached a record 26% in February 2010, according to the U. S. Department of Labor. But is the laid-off electrician who was earning $856 a week, and is likely a union member with health benefits, suffering more than the home health aid still earning $430 a week, with no benefits and no union? Are men in the higher-paying construction industry suffering more than women in the lower-paying health care sector or women who are more likely to be single parents and living in poverty?

Who is suffering more, however, is the wrong question. Everyone but the very rich are suffering in this recession. In the 21st century, the federal government needs to have both a short-term stimulus program and a long-term economic plan that supports creating good jobs and decent wages for all workers without discrimination based on gender or race. It needs to have a jobs agenda that is fair and equitable. Government policies should not support one group of workers at the expense of others. Stimulus money going to the depressed infrastructure industry needs to create jobs that are equally accessible to men and women, minorities and non-minorities. Stimulus money in the new green energy industry should create jobs and actively recruit workers regardless of gender and race and not reinforce discrimination prohibited by law.

Let's focus more closely on women in the predominantly male, blue collar world of construction trades. Yes, there are women in these jobs. It is important to note that according to the Department of Labor in 2005, before the recession began, only slightly fewer women had joined the construction trades, about 274,000, than had become lawyers, 290,000. There were slightly more tradeswomen than women physicians, 268,000. Women, however, had become 30% of lawyers and 32% of doctors, but fewer than 5% of the electricians, plumbers or bricklayers. Despite three decades of equal employment policies, job training programs, and thousands of women showing that they are interested in and capable of performing this work, the jobs remain segregated and the women who are there are joining the unemployment lines.

Tradeswomen and researchers have identified many of the barriers to women's employment in skilled trades, including the socialization of young girls, employer discrimination in hiring and promotion, male coworker and union hostility, and lack of enforcement by government regulators. There is also evidence to support the kinds of outreach and training programs, as well as organizational changes, that are needed to recruit more women, end hostile workplace environments and sexual harassment (which can be life threatening in these jobs), reform employer personnel systems, and engage unions and employers in positive changes for hiring, training, promoting, and retaining women.

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These programs begin with vigorous enforcement of the laws, especially Executive Order 11246, which is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor and prohibits gender discrimination by government contractors. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) established the first goals for women in apprenticeship and skilled trades in 1978.

The Obama administration and Congress have undertaken several initiatives to address gender segregation in construction trades while increasing employment. Earlier this year, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis met with tradeswomen, advocates, and researchers to discuss the barriers and successes for women in the trades. Patricia Shiu, director of the OFCCP, and Sara Manzano-Diaz, director of the Women's Bureau, have held hearings around the country. The Engineering News-Record reports that Shiu's office, which enforces the executive order, is reevaluating what "good-fair effort" means, and she declared that, "In order for the numbers to change, we have to be willing and able to enforce the laws that we implement, and we are."

There are no goals set for women and minorities to receive infrastructure jobs under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But the stimulus program does include $20 million for grants in transportation and technology training and includes supportive services for women, minorities, and other disadvantaged groups. The Women's Bureau has again awarded over one million dollars in grants for outreach and training for women in apprenticeship and nontraditional occupations, the WANTO program. Congressman Jared Polis, from Colorado, has introduced H.R. 4830, the Women & Workforce Investment for Nontraditional Jobs Act. This Women WIN Act would authorize up to $100 million for recruiting, training, and retraining women in nontraditional jobs and establish a national commission to hold hearings and make policy recommendations.

Are these actions enough? Not yet. Policies and programs need to be supported with budgets and staff who implement rewards and penalties. It is too early to measure the effects of new initiatives or to predict the outcome of proposed legislation, but the movement is in the right direction. Hard economic times are not a reason to deny women the right to jobs they have shown they are interested in, that they are fully capable of performing, that they need to support their families, and that they have been denied access to in the past because of their gender. Government money must be spent without discrimination against women or people of color.

While it is well known that the Roosevelt Administration didn't solve the problems of employment discrimination, in 1948 Eleanor Roosevelt was instrumental in providing a human rights framework for achieving equality in the workplace. Written while she was chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifies in article 23 that everyone has a right to a decent job, fair working conditions, a living wage, no discrimination, protection from unemployment, and a voice at work. Perhaps we should put more effort into achieving a full employment policy under a human rights framework, instead of arguing about who is suffering more in a recession and how to divide limited resources in ways that reinforce gender stereotypes.

Brigid O’Farrell is an independent scholar whose research and writing focuses on employment equity, especially for women in nontraditional jobs, and labor history. She is the author most recently of She Was One of Us.

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