"What It’s Like To Be One Of The Only Female Construction Workers In America"
Patricia Valoy was not the typical worker when she began her apprenticeship at a construction site in college. As a woman of color, she is rare among construction workers: women make up just 2.6 percent of all employees in construction and extraction jobs, and about three-quarters of those women are white, according to a report released by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) on Wednesday. Hispanic women make up just 0.4 percent of construction workers, while black women are 0.2 percent, and Asian and Native American are each 0.1 percent.
But she was excited about her apprenticeship. While studying civil engineering at Columbia University, she began to find herself drawn to construction management. “It’s the type of work where you deal more with people, see the product as it evolves, as opposed to engineering where a lot of the design work is just on paper,” she said. “I was like, I think this will be a better fit for my personality.” The apprenticeship she got working on a high-rise luxury building near Central Park in New York City paid well and had hours she liked. “I thought it would be the best internship ever.”
Those hopes were dashed on the very first day. She went to the construction site along with another young woman and two young men. The first construction manager who came to get them “literally split us down gender lines,” she said. “He grabbed the two boys and said, ‘Come with me.’” As an excuse, he told the two women, “Sorry, I don’t work with women in this job, it’s nothing personal.”
It got worse from there.
“These men I worked with asked me out on dates, which was totally inappropriate, commented on my body, commented on my abilities,” she said. That was the hardest part. “What bothered me the most was the sexual harassment and feeling intimidated.”
Even the work she was assigned fell down gendered lines. She was given administrative tasks like making lists, taking pictures, and checking to see if others’ tasks were completed. “They would tell me all the time, ‘Honey, stay here, this is really dangerous,’” she said.
She also wasn’t getting the training she had come for. “Nobody explained things to me, nobody cared whether I was learning or not,” she said. The boys, on the other hand, were invited to meetings and given in-depth explanations of how things were done.
Valoy represents many women in her industry. The Department of Labor found that 88 percent of women in construction said they had experienced sexual harassment at work, compared to 25 percent of women in the workforce generally. And, according to NWLC, they “are more likely to be concentrated in office positions…and least likely to be found in more labor intensive positions,” but those office positions pay less.
Valoy did complete her apprenticeship. That makes her unique. The NWLC report notes that women leave these programs at higher rates than men: in four of the five construction jobs that have the most women, more women than men still didn’t complete their programs. Carpenter apprenticeships have a particularly bad track record, with 70 percent of women leaving before the end of their programs, compared to 53 percent of men. The women who leave point to hostile work environments, harassment, and the lack of child care.
But after she finished, Valoy decided she couldn’t do construction site work.
“At the end of the summer I said, ‘Okay, I want to stay in the industry, but I can’t do it day in and day out on the site.’ So I went into project management on the engineering side.” She now goes to construction sites, but she’s there representing engineers with the clients by her side.
If it weren’t for the harassment, “I definitely think I would have stayed,” she said. “I loved it, I really did.” She liked the changing workplace setting as workers moved from project to project. The hours appealed to her not just now, but if she were ever to become a mother: The early start and early finish align well with school hours. And while many people may think this line of work requires brute strength, that’s not the reality on the job.
“A lot of people have the idea of construction as being super backbreaking work, so you have to be the biggest, burliest person to handle it,” she said. “But no one is actually lifting boulders. We’re not building the pyramids here.” The teamwork, equipment, and best practices mean that most of it isn’t heavy lifting. “Nobody was doing anything I couldn’t do,” she recalled.
Women’s small share of these jobs haven’t been increasing; it’s about where it was three decades ago. The challenges women face when trying to break in look a lot like what Valoy struggled with. Information about how to just get into an apprenticeship is tightly controlled by the workers themselves, who are predominantly male, NWLC reports. Then they struggle to get through them thanks to the kind of harassment Valoy had to deal with. And the harassment can be intense. As the NWLC report notes, “Some of the practices cited include: negative stereotypes about women’s ability to perform construction work; sexual tension injected into work contexts; intentions to reserve well-paid employment for men, ‘who deserve it’; and reluctance by supervisors and other officials to discipline perpetrators of discrimination.”
This is not just problematic because women are being locked out of an industry, but because it’s a lucrative one. The median hourly wage for these jobs is nearly $20 an hour. That’s a good deal better than female-dominated jobs like home health aides or childcare workers, who make $10 an hour and $9.38 an hour, respectively. Women in construction also experience a smaller wage gap with their male coworkers: They earn 89 percent of men’s weekly earnings, compared to 82 percent nationwide.
“I would love to go back and I think about it all the time,” Valoy said. But without a crackdown on the discrimination that festers in the industry and sweeping cultural change, women like her will continue to get pushed out.