By Meghan Hall
Industries across the United States and around the world are working to increase equitable and inclusionary employment practices. However, the commercial real estate industry, and in particular the construction sector, continues to lag far behind. While major companies celebrated Women in Construction Week in March in a continued effort to highlight employment opportunities available to women within the construction industry, the number of women in construction has declined from 1,079,000 in 2005 to 939,000 in December 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most updated findings.
“There is a clear understanding, not just in our industry, but across the country, that the world is changing. The 21st Century has brought on massive globalization, demographic shifts and increased competitiveness for talent,” explained Ashley Ruiz, director of diversity, inclusion and community relations at McKinstry, a national construction firm. “Organizations are increasingly recognizing that diversity and inclusion are not just peripheral things anymore. It is not just something we do because it’s nice or good to do on the side but because there is a core business imperative to the long-term success of the organization.”
According to research published in the Harvard Business Review in February 2019 by Harvard Business School Professor Letian Zhang, in a study of 1,069 leading firms across 35 countries and 24 industries, gender diversity related to more productive companies, as measured in terms of market value and revenue, in contexts where gender diversity was widely accepted and viewed as important.
“There have been a number of research studies that have shown that companies who excel in these areas are more profitable,” said Ruiz. “They have higher levels of productivity and obtain better outcomes; they are better at attracting and retaining talent; they connect better with clients and customers. And overall, they have an increased likelihood for success in the long haul.”
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the number of women in construction reached its peak in 2006, when 1,131,000 women were employed within the industry. The number steadily declined from 2006 to 2012, with the sharpest drop occurring between 2008 and 2009 at the beginning of the Great Recession, when female employment in the sector decreased from 970,200 to 807,000. In 2012, the number of women in the industry reached its lowest point, with 802,000 women working in the industry. Since 2012, the number has grown slowly, but steadily. Overall, women make up for about nine percent of workers the construction sector.
“Unfortunately, the construction industry has been one of the slowest to change and remains one of the least gender-inclusive industries in the country,” said Ruiz. “When asked about transformational shifts over the past 20 years, there really haven’t been many. You certainly do see increases in gender equity and gender representation in almost all industries across the globe, but construction is really lagging behind.”
According to Ruiz, there are a number of reasons why female employment in the construction industry has lagged, but chief among them is simply awareness. Ruiz points toward McKinstry’s work with young women interested in pursuing STEM as an example.
“My opinion is that there are probably a lot of perceptions that could be changed about the industry,” added Ruiz. “Even today, in 2019, we still hear girls who meet some of our women and say, ‘I didn’t know women could work in engineering and construction.’ In 2019! You would think that today, girls know that they can pursue any career they want to, but they don’t.”
For Ruiz, part of bridging the gap is through role models, career exposure and education. The national campaign for Women in Construction Week, begun by the National Association of Women in Construction, is one such avenue that McKinstry, among other major industry firms, pursue to celebrate women’s efforts and advancements in the industry. In March, McKinstry held two events — one in Seattle and one in Spokane — featuring a variety of guests including an all-girls robotics team, Cheryl Camberlain, McKinstry’s chief administrative officer, Renée Cheng, University of Washington’s new dean of the College of Built Environments, and Megan Owen, McKinstry’s director of strategic market development.
“I do think there is a critical part to helping people to see a future, for them to understand what that future and that career in the construction industry looks like,” explained Ruiz. “Then, when they do get there, [we have] to make sure they are supported and uplifted, that job sites are safe and comfortable working environments for women. I think as you continue to get more representation in those fields, that you will also continue to see the snowballing effect of more women recruited.”
McKinstry has implemented an array of tools from unconscious bias training — something required of all new hires — to extensive pay equity evaluations to management training suites in an effort to make the company more equitable and inclusionary. Today, 30 percent of McKinstry’s professional staff and 15 percent of its total staff, including tradespeople, are women. McKinstry, said Ruiz, will continue to strategically focus on improving women’s involvement in the construction industry and to make strides in not just increasing diversity, but inclusion.
“Diversity in and of itself is just a number; it is a metric,” said Ruiz. “Inclusion is something beyond diversity. Inclusion is where you have people with all of these diverse backgrounds and experiences, but everyone feels like they belong. People are valued and treated with respect and dignity. People feel like they can bring their full authentic self to work every day. Everyone feels as though they are a part of the collective whole of the organization.”