HR professionals can do a lot to improve the hostile work environment experienced by many women working in construction, said Brigid O’Farrell, author of a new report on women in the male-dominated industry.
The report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research noted that women hold less than 3 percent of front-line construction jobs. Add to that group of employees managers, secretaries and other white-collar salaried positions, and the number of women in the industry rises to 9.6 percent.
Though the construction industry overall is recovering from the recession, unemployment and underemployment are still high for women in the trades and higher nationally for women than men.
Three in 10 of the women surveyed reported high levels of harassment, and more than 1 in 10 experienced job discrimination severe enough to file a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Examples of discrimination included “being demoted or not promoted because men didn’t want to work for a woman, being assigned the hardest work, being last to get work and first to be laid off, being hit with cranes and having tires flattened,” the report said.
Nearly 80 percent of the women said they were treated equally when it came to job safety, 78 percent said the same when it came to formal training, and 75 percent felt that way regarding the use of tools. But only 40 percent said they felt they were treated equally in terms of promotions. That’s a concern because 79 percent of the women surveyed were the main wage earners in their households.
“Any HR department can look at, over the last several years, how many promotional opportunities were available and who got those promotions,” O’Farrell said. “If there were 20 promotions in the last two years and they all went to men, that doesn’t mean women were discriminated against. It means you need to look carefully at it.”
Federal contractors are required to take affirmative steps in recruiting women and to use other methods to try to increase the number of women in construction, said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center and lead author of another 2014 study, Women in Construction: Still Breaking Barriers.
HR can help by questioning workers about how they learned of promotion opportunities, how widely the opportunities were advertised and how much influence the current boss had over promotions.
“Interview the workers,” O’Farrell said. “Just because there’s an open, transparent policy on paper doesn’t mean that’s how it’s working.” When there are labor unions, she said, HR should develop good working relationships with them.
HR professionals should ensure that all employees are aware of federal anti-discrimination laws and that those laws are enforced. Technical assistance for these tasks is available from the U.S. Department of Labor. HR can also see to it that women have restrooms on the job and necessary equipment, such as smaller-sized boots and hard hats.
And what about women who experience sexist comments?
“Company culture comes into play very strongly in those situations,” O’Farrell said. “If someone is treated unfairly, make sure it’s dealt with fairly and immediately.” Workers should feel like they can come forward to talk to HR and be treated seriously, she remarked.
Companies should be aware of their obligations under the law, Chaudhry added. All workers need to be trained in how to respond to sexual harassment. “Make sure everybody is aware of what their rights are,” Chaudhry urged.
Many companies have a policy that any worker who says something off-color or out of line is fired on the spot, noted Dede Hughes, executive vice president of the National Association of Women in Construction.
Joan Mooney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.