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Women in Construction: Building Bridges into a Male-Dominated Industry | Jenna Fama

In 1995, Coca-Cola released an infamous Diet Coke television commercial. The ad depicted a male construction worker taking a “Diet Coke break” as five women watched from an office window. The construction worker proceeded to take his shirt off to then open a refreshing can of Diet Coke. To TV watchers of Friends or Roseanne, two top programs from the era, this was just another silly ad made by Coca-Cola about their soft drinks. Many other Coca-Cola ads in the 1990s depicted women, always as office workers, being hot and bothered by any kind of male presence. These commercials reaffirmed the stereotype that women are glorified receptionists and men are builders (who may or may not take off their shirts on break). Men pound nails, drive forklifts, pour concrete; women swoon from the secretarial pool.

Roughly eleven million total employees work within the construction industry; ten million of those are men. Historically, this industry has been governed by men. The biggest construction company in America is Bechtel, run by Brendan Bechtel and Craig Albert. The second biggest is Fluor, run by David Constable; the third is Zachry, run by David Zachry. All of these firms are male run with a majority-male workforce. As the times start to change, women are starting to infiltrate this masculine field. According to the United States Department of Labor, there was a major increase in the number of women employed in the US construction industry between 1985 and 2007. In a 2018 study completed by Fluor, it found that 26 percent of their workforce was female.

Two members of NAWIC on construction site / Photo Credit: Jennifer Rhoad; NAWIC

Not only has there been an increase in women in construction, but there has also been an increase in support for women wanting a career in the field. The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) is one trade group supporting women working in this male-dominated field. The NAWIC was created in 1953 in Fort Worth, Texas, by sixteen women who worked within the construction industry. They advocate for women in construction and help them to build professional and personal connections within the construction world. Their main slogan: “Leading Builders. Building leaders.”

In 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Catalyst discovered that more and more women are joining the construction industry than ever before, though female forklift operators, concrete fabricators, and electricians still make up a very low percentage at just 10.9 percent of the workforce.

The survey found that “women continue to make less money than their male counterparts, are in fewer leadership roles and women’s unemployment is down by nine percent from February 2020.” That discrepancy extends to the pocketbook. Women in construction make ninety-six cents for every dollar a man makes.

“The commissioner did not believe that I could perform construction—because I was female.”

However, the NAWIC commissioned the report, “Safe Site Check In” which found job opportunities for women in construction are on the rise. And 59 percent of respondents are in favor of equality within the industry. In this report, the results concluded that, “The opportunities for women in construction are increasing, decreasing, or about the same.”

Women infiltrating the Construction Industry

The data tells one story. But on the job site, goliath male construction companies, being driven by bravado and brawn, still exclude women from this field. One of the women working for a foothold is Barbra Fiorillo, who shared her experience of the challenges many female construction owners face within this patriarchal field.

Fiorillo is the owner of Liberty Concrete Structures, LLC, out of Winter Garden, Florida. Her company is a structural concrete sub-contractor that works for general contractors. She believes that working within this field has its challenges.

Owner of Liberty Concrete Structures Barbra Fiorillo / Photo Credit: Barbra Fiorillo

“In a male-dominated field, being a woman has had its roadblocks, especially in the beginning. I got a lot of responses from respectful people within the industry always asking for my qualifications. Now, I have been a business owner for many years and continue being questioned.”

In Florida, Fiorillo was able to become WBE (Women Business Enterprise) certified. WBE businesses are certifications that woman obtain to prove they have majority ownership and control of a business entity. Fiorillo showed that she owned more than 50 percent of a company and obtained an ID along with other normal business paperwork.

“Some Florida counties have their own WBE program, and you need to apply to that certain county,” she tells me over the phone. “We do a lot of business in Hillsborough County, so I started the application process there. The paperwork was far more detailed than the state. The first time I applied, I was denied for lack of experience.”

Determined to prove them wrong, Fiorillo decided to go the extra mile. She obtained a Master Certification in concrete. When she went to re-apply, they denied her for the second time. She then decided to request an appeal meeting, which meant she would have to meet with the commissioner to go over her application. Since this was during COVID-19, they set up a Zoom conference. When they finally met, she was astounded at the reason for her denial: “The commissioner did not believe that I could perform construction—because I was female.”

This was just one experience, among many, that women must face within this testosterone-driven industry. Fiorillo’s abilities have been questioned in the jobsite as well. “When I show up at a job site, many workers will turn and say, ‘you must be someone’s wife or relative.’”  In these circumstances, she would explain that she is the owner, and their facial expression would drastically change. “It will take time to change this negative stigma that women aren’t ‘qualified enough’ in this industry. By breaking down this barrier, women will prove they belong in construction as much as men do.”

She has constantly faced the stereotype that women are not “experienced” nor “skilled” enough to run their own business. Even after three years in the business, she is constantly asked about her qualifications. But she remains committed to her trade. “As a women-owned construction sub-contractor, we can perform the same jobs as others. It takes time, confidence, and an incredible amount of patience to get there.”

“Some, as soon as they see the word ‘administrator’ in my title, think I’m nothing more than a glorified receptionist.”

Women working construction in the Sun Belt aren’t the only one’s facing the pressures of working in a masculine field. Anne Pfleger, HR and IT for Charles Construction and President of the NAWIC, has been working in the construction and transportation industry for over twenty-five years. “Some, as soon as they see the word ‘administrator’ in my title, think I’m nothing more than a glorified receptionist,” Pfleger said.

President of the NAWIC Anne Pfleger / Photo Credit: NAWIC

One of the biggest issues she faces within the construction industry is the need to prove herself to be worthy of her title. Pfleger continues to fight this battle but believes that once she starts talking to any of her male counterparts, she can provide the information they are looking for to prove her level of expertise in the field. Her experience as a project administer may have aided her in these interactions. The job entailed calculating project metrics, facilitating project development plans, and analyzing project data to create project reports. These are just a few general jobs Pfleger may have had a hand in when working as a project administrator.

Women Facing Discrimination and Harassment

A 2017 survey by Catalyst Research revealed that 28 percent of women who work within any male-dominated industry, believe “they had personally experienced sexual harassment, compared to 20 percent of other female-dominated industries.” This harassment continues in spite of educating the construction workforce with certain webinars, seminars, and required harassment prevention training.

Another survey done in 2020 by Catalyst Research stated that harassment doesn’t just start when women get into a macho industry. The survey expressed that this issue of harassment is seen before women enter the workforce: “Women pursuing male-dominated university majors experience higher levels of harassment than women earning other degrees.” This has become an increasingly large issue that isn’t being properly addressed in industries like construction, where discrimination and harassment consistently take place.

The 2017 survey by the NAWIC-OSHA Alliance Committee on Harassment in the Workplace received a high amount of“No, but…” answers. Some examples of these answers are No, I have not experienced sexism, but I do get called Sweetie; the old guys like to hug; the guys say something, but then say they were just joking…” The report concluded that sexism, bullying, and sexual harassment are still present in the construction industry today.

Pfleger and her board at the NAWIC’s mission is to continuously enhance women’s success in the construction industry. But the stigma women face has greatly decreased in the last few years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. She believes the industry has been preparing for the increase in women within the workforce. “Women have inherent traits like problem solving, having different perspectives, multi-tasking, and finding new ways of working smarter, just to list a few.”

Jimmy Greene, president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) Greater Michigan Chapter expressed in an article by Build Your Future (BYF) that “Men have a tendency to follow a flame; women follow the pattern.” Although the world is dealing with the aftermath of the global pandemic, construction businesses are in direr need of women in the industry.

Kristen on construction site/ Photo Credit: Lindsay Nelson; NAWIC

Diversity within this field helps introduce new methods and approaches. Debbie Dickinson, CEO of Crane Industries, stated in the BYF article that “diversity drives innovation.” The women and minorities in the building trade received a boost on April 7th from the Biden administration. The President proposed a two-million-dollar infrastructure plan that will expand the access and funding for pre-apprenticeship programs for women and people of color. According to Fortune’s article, women in construction could get a big support from Biden’s infrastructure plan, the investment from Biden’s bill will help set “women up for success in an industry that continues to be overwhelmingly male-dominated.”

Pfelger and Fiorillo are building bridges to the construction industry that will begin to open doors for female-based businesses. This will encourage other women to fight against the discrimination, violence, or harassment they may face within this or any other male-prominent industry.

Jenna Fama is a staff writer for the Blue Muse Magazine

Header Photo Credit: Corie Spankowski, NAWIC

Blue Muse Magazine is a general interest literary magazine published by the students of the English Department at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut. We publish poetry, fiction, and a gamut of creative nonfiction on anything and everything the blue muse inspires us to write.

3 comments on “Women in Construction: Building Bridges into a Male-Dominated Industry | Jenna Fama

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