Safety culture

Supporting women in construction

Safety pros and industry leaders offer input for overcoming challenges


Construction safety manager Karen Meistas has more than 25 years of industry experience.

Reflections of achievements come easily. But so do thoughts of challenges she and other women have encountered while advancing in a traditionally male-dominated field.

“Women seem to have to work harder to prove their knowledge of the subject matter even when they might have more knowledge and experience than a male,” Meistas says. “That’s where I still find we have inequities as far as, ‘You’re a woman, you’re not smart enough.’ Or, ‘You don’t know as much as I do.’”

Fellow female safety professionals shared similar struggles when speaking with Safety+Health. They also offered strategies for overcoming biases and supporting women in construction.

“Raising awareness is the first step,” said Anna Copeland, safety director at Brandt Construction in Milan, IL, “and then everybody following through and making small gains as they can and continuing to grow.”

‘Let me help you with that’

It’s been a progressive climb, but more women are entering the U.S. construction workforce. A data analysis conducted in May by CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training shows that in 2022, 11% of construction workers were women – up from 9% in 2011.

Within that time frame, administrative support was the construction industry job type that had the highest annual average number of female workers – 426,400. Manager (139,600) followed as the next most common occupation among women in construction. Professional (126,800), construction manager (64,300) and laborer (60,800) rounded out the top five.

For women in the construction trades, unconscious bias – or social stereotyping – may contribute to unfair treatment or negative encounters on the job. That’s the experience of Kathi Dobson, safety director for St. Louis-based Alberici Constructors Inc. and member of OSHA’s National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health.

One example? A perception among some field leadership is that women lack the physical strength of their male counterparts.

“When you think about, ‘Oh, you know what? A woman isn’t as strong as a man, so she can’t do the big job that a man can do,’ you’re going to run into situations like, ‘Let me help you with that,’ or, ‘I’ll carry that for you,’ or, ‘I’ll do that for you,’” Dobson said.

“In reality, most of the things nowadays that we’re faced with from either a lifting, pushing or pulling experience, if it’s more than 50 pounds, we’re going to have help anyhow. Or we’re going to use a mechanical device to move things around.”

To Copeland, men and women share the responsibility of demonstrating the ability to learn and understand the nature of construction work.

Commonly, though, women can face steeper challenges.

“Dealing with certain personalities and there tends to be a lot of macho guys,” Copeland said. “It takes a little bit more for them to build trust. So, I think that’s a hurdle that could be remedied, but I think it still exists.”

CPWR Executive Director Chris Cain cites a trend that could exacerbate concerns. She says women in construction have been reporting a disparity in training based on gender for years.

“Really, where the technical side falls down is if there’s hostility on the job and women aren’t getting the training they need on the job,” Cain said. “The culture in the workplace has to be right to ensure the on-the-job portion of that training makes its way where it needs to be.”

Ways to make gains

Cain and other experts have advice for female construction workers who encounter bias on the job.

Show your work: Multiple safety pros said it makes a considerable difference to male counterparts and supervisors when women can demonstrate they’re trained equally and able to complete job tasks.

Copeland aims to better understand workers who might question her by working alongside them. Walking through the competencies of a particular task reinforces both her knowledge and ability, as well as safe work practices.

“Getting in there, side by side with them, shoulder to shoulder, saying, ‘Let me see it from your perspective, and then I want to show you from my perspective,’” Copeland said. “That’s something that I’ve really believed in, and I think it helped me a lot.”

For Dobson, acts such as these illustrate that “a woman doing a job that a man traditionally has done doesn’t mean that it’s going to be less successful.” It further builds support among male leadership.

“There’s still very few women in the building trades working out in the field,” Dobson said, “so we need both women and men to help champion us and be able to show the way and to say, ‘Yes, I’ve worked with this woman or I’ve worked with women and they’re really great. They can do this, they can do that. They’re really detail oriented. They’re focused. They can weld well. They’re dexterous.’ All those messages can come from their field peers.”

Challenge the culture: In March 2023, the National Center for Construction Education and Research published a report that asserts the construction industry must “change the culture and perception of our industry” to recruit and retain women.

NCCER surveyed 770 women in construction and directed focus groups with 176 tradeswomen. Among survey respondents, 20% disagreed with the statement, “At the place I work, I am treated with respect.” Meanwhile, 46% said they’d been the recipient of derogatory comments or jokes on the job.

Dobson says women who face conflict or perceived unfair treatment “can’t be afraid to speak out. At the same time, we can’t be afraid that if we speak up, we’re going to lose our jobs.”

Meistas points to an additional challenge women may encounter: Navigating the balance between coming off “too strong, too authoritarian” and “too sheepish.”

A job-box talk from RISE Up (Respect, Inclusion, Safety, and Equity) – a construction worker advocacy group – has tips for productive conflict resolution to ensure a safe working environment.

When approaching a supervisor to discuss an issue, workers should:

  • State your goal for the conversation.
  • Paraphrase back what you hear, using neutral language.
  • Build understanding by discussing one issue at a time. Clarify assumptions.
  • Agree on a solution.
  • Create a shared action plan.
  • Avoid blame, the silent treatment or disrespectful behaviors.
There is something to seeing someone who looks like you on the job. Knowing you’re not the only one like that there. So that’s been a positive development and, hopefully, as we continue to see the increases, we’re going to see that further.

Chris Cain
Executive Director
CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training

Stay ‘centered’: If work issues having negative impacts on someone’s mental health, they should consult their employer or OSHA for resources.

Meistas recommends regularly practicing mindfulness to help limit emotional and psychological stress.

“Staying centered with your mental health,” she said. “Recognizing that I need to focus on my own self and my own feelings. Make sure my response to what I’m being handed or what I’m having to manage is completely in my control. I can’t control what people do or say, or how they look or behave. All I can control is how I respond.”

Find a mentor or peer group: Yes, the increase in the number of women in construction has been a slow and steady one, but it represents progress nonetheless.

Cain points to an uptick in women in construction sharing with CPWR the excitement of no longer being the sole woman in their union or working for their employer.

“There’s this kind of benefit of having more women and having peer groups available that’s empowering,” she said. “There is something to seeing someone who looks like you on the job. Knowing you’re not the only one like that there. So that’s been a positive development and, hopefully, as we continue to see the increases, we’re going to see that further.”

Dobson finds “most women who have been in the trades will help support other women coming into the trades and say, ‘Hey, I did this in order to make it easier for me to move this.’ Or, ‘I used this particular lifting technique,’ or, ‘I used this piece of equipment; you can use that piece of equipment, too, and it will make it easier.’”

To Dobson, that kind of camaraderie can boost safety and productivity while lifting the morale of an expanding segment of the workforce.

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