Efforts to recruit women into construction trade careers have ramped up their numbers somewhat, but major culture barriers still hinder bigger increases, say two surveys across the union and nonunion sectors of the industry.

At a Capitol Hill event held March 8 on International Women’s Day, Sean McGarvey, North American Building Trades Union president, outlined the results of a NABTU-commissioned study by the Institute for Construction Economics Research that evaluated how effective industry diversity and inclusion initiatives have been in bringing more women and minorities into the construction workforce. 

The study, conducted over 18 months by a team of academics from several universities, found that over the past decade, the union sector has doubled the number of women in the trades. “That sounds great, and we’re proud of the efforts we’ve made, but the fact of the matter is, we’ve only gone from 1% to 4%,” McGarvey said. 

The challenge of recruiting women to the industry is not limited to trade unions. Overall, women accounted for just 10.9% of construction employees in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

McGarvey added that challenges persist not only in recruiting, but in retaining women, partially due to issues such as lack of childcare programs that have hours to accommodate a construction worker with children, or lack of proximity to that worker's jobsite. 

A new report released March 6 from the National Center for Construction Education and Research echoes those obstacles for women in construction,. 

NCCER, which provides standardized construction training curriculum, accreditation and instructor certification, interviewed 176 tradeswomen and surveyed 770 women working in construction. They found that 57% of surveyed tradeswomen said they have never had a female supervisor in the industry, although 69% said they wanted to be in a leadership position at some point in their career.

NCCER’s survey results also show that 57% of tradeswomen say they receive no paid time off for their position, compared to just 4% of women in managerial, administrative and technical roles in the industry. Also, 25% of tradeswomen reported facing disciplinary action for missing work to attend family emergencies.

The report identified that ensuring consistent hiring practices and offering training opportunities as key steps to better recruit and retain women in building trades. Several women interviewed for the NCCER report said they did not receive responses when applying for craft positions—until they began using gender-neutral names like Chris instead of Christine. 

The biggest craft recruitment hurdle for industry—identified by tradeswomen NCCER interviewed—is discrimination and sexual harassment. Report authors wrote that companies should create and share a sexual harassment prevention policy that sets a transparent process for addressing complaints. 

They also suggested creating women’s resource groups to meet regularly and provide feedback to make women feel more connected.

“If we want construction careers to be a viable option for all people, we have to change the culture and perception of our industry, starting with our own projects,” Jennifer Wilkerson, NCCER vice president of innovation and advancement, said in a statement.

For NABTU, political priorities to help address some challenges women face in entering a training program or working in the industry include supporting legislation to expand and diversify participation in pre-apprenticeship programs. 

This includes the American Apprenticeship Act, bipartisan legislation introduced in the Senate Jan. 30 by Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). Similar legislation passed the House in 2021, but never moved beyond referral to the the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. 

McGarvey said the enactment of three major infrastructure funding bills in the last session of Congress could generate a new era for workers over the next 15 to 20 years. 

He said those who will make up the so-called “infrastructure generation” will look back at enactment of these laws as the time when “they got their start ... and training.”