What can the “Big Dig” teach us about women in construction careers?

construction_worker_at_westlake_center_1988

by Carolyn Arcand

Our society’s ideas about who belongs on a construction site begin at birth. Take a look at the boys’ section of any major infant clothing retailer and you will find onesies and footie pajamas covered with cement trucks and earth movers. These symbols are absent from the clothing designed for baby girls.

Gendered ideas about construction extend to adults in the workplace, where men make up 97.5% of construction workers nationwide.

Construction is a growing sector of the economy that offers relatively high wages, paid on-the-job training for apprentice workers, and often an opportunity to be part of a labor union. Women, who are disproportionately likely to work in low-wage jobs, could benefit from the paid training and high wages provided by construction careers. So, why do women make up such a small segment of workers in this industry?

Prior research, often based on interviews with female construction workers, has sought to address this question. The answer is: it’s complicated. It likely starts in the infants’ section of the clothing store, where the boys are given the outfits printed with construction equipment and the girls are not.

In short, boys and girls are socialized differently.

Ideas about appropriate behavior for males and females ultimately lead to women having fewer skills relevant to construction work than men, and less experience with tools, which makes it harder to find work in the industry. Men also often connect with construction jobs through informal networks, and women don’t have access to the same networks.

Women who do find work in construction have reported being viewed as outsiders on job sites, and can experience harassment as a result. Continued harassment can lead to women leaving the industry. Those who persevere and advance to managerial status have described experiencing insubordination from male coworkers, sabotage, and discrimination.

Additionally, women have reported being hired on construction jobs by contractors who want to demonstrate adherence to diversity quotas, only to be let go once a good faith effort to meet the quota has been made (this practice is known as “checkerboarding”).

In a recent study, I examined over 20 years’ worth of payroll data from the Central Artery/Tunnel project in Boston, MA (commonly known as the “Big Dig”) to understand trends in women’s participation on a major, long term construction project.

The Big Dig was a significant driver of the local economy for decades, employing over 5,000 workers at one time. Construction work on the project spanned 1989-2010, with the majority completed by 2006. As the most expensive highway ever built in the United States, the Big Dig removed and replaced an elevated highway with a high-capacity underground highway, built two new bridges, and beautified the Boston city skyline by creating a new expanse of green, open space.

In addition to studying the participation of women on the Big Dig, I used the data to investigate whether the creation of a major federal workforce development program helped to connect women to work on the project. The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 mandated the establishment of American Job Centers (AJCs; formerly known as One Stop Career Centers), which work locally to link individuals with promising training and employment opportunities.

Given the potential of construction as a pathway to jobs with good wages, paid training, and benefits, it would make sense for workforce development programs to connect both women and men to jobs in this field. AJCs were established in the year 2000, halfway through the Big Dig project. I expected that if AJCs were connecting women to construction careers in Boston, I would see a clear increase in women’s prevalence on the Big Dig in the years after AJCs were created.

I found that women performed 3 percent the total hours worked on the Big Dig.

The largest proportion of work done by women was in entry-level apprentice positions, at 9.9% of all hours worked. Women’s prevalence was much smaller in the upper-level journeyworker and foreperson positions, where they worked just 3.1% of all project hours and 0.8% of all project hours, respectively.

Women’s participation peaked in the early 1990s, and generally decreased in all positions over the years, with a small upward movement in 2007 before dropping off in the final stages of the project. There are many possible explanations for this downward trend.

Checkerboarding could explain women’s decreasing participation over time, with women being let go from their jobs once contractors had shown a good faith effort towards meeting diversity quotas. Stressful work environments, including on-the-job harassment, could have contributed to women’s decreased participation over time.

Additionally, the Great Recession of 2007-2009 occurred towards the end of the project. History has shown that women tend to advance into male-dominated fields during times of economic expansion, and to lose ground in times of recession. The recession could have negatively impacted women’s retention in the later years of the Big Dig. Other explanations are possible as well.

When I looked at whether the creation of AJCs was associated with an increased prevalence of women’s participation on the Big Dig, I did not find clear evidence that this was the case. The general downward trend in women’s participation continued over the course of the Big Dig despite the establishment of AJCs.

In my interviews with Boston-area AJC managers, they cited a general lack of demand from women seeking construction work. Other research has found that female clients are often directed into traditionally “women’s jobs” by job training programs.

Of course, AJCs don’t exist in a vacuum – the social factors that assign construction work a “male” gender can prevent women from seeking assistance with finding this type of work, and can deter center managers and staff from thinking of construction as a promising career for women. Also, unions and informal networking – forces that work outside of public workforce development programs – are common ways to connect with construction work.

In order for women to benefit from projected growth in the construction industry in coming years, effort must be made by workforce development programs to prepare them for, and connect them to, this work.

First, targeting workforce development funding to construction skill building and pre-apprenticeship training programs for women can combat low initial skill levels and provide women with networking opportunities that can translate into job offers. Second, trade unions play an important role in connecting women with construction careers, and typically have more success recruiting women than non-union programs.

Public workforce development programs may look to partner with unions to advertise and connect women with training and job opportunities in construction. It wouldn’t hurt to start selling footie pajamas with cement mixers and earth movers in the baby girls’ section of clothing retailers, either.

Carolyn Arcand, Ph.D., is a lecturer in Political Science and Public Administration at the University of New Hampshire. When performing this research, Carolyn was affiliated with the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston.This article summarizes findings from “Women in Construction and the Workforce Investment Act: Evidence from Boston and the Big Dig” in Labor Studies Journal.

Image: Seattle Municipal Archives via Wikimedia Commons.

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