Construction is actively recruiting women, and it’s working—slowly. According to research from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women represent 3.4% of workers in the construction industry in the US, up 2.7% from 2015.
Women who work in construction report that biases remain, a fact felt doubly by some women of color. The issue is even more pressing as Black, Hispanic, and Asian women and females of mixed race account for 45% of women working in the trades in the US.
During ENR’s Groundbreaking Women in Construction Conference, a panel of women got together to discuss Young Women of Color in Construction: What They Don’t Tell You. Jackie Gomez, Program Director for the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association (HACIA), moderated the session. Panelists were Hephzibah Dadala, a third-year civil engineering student at Cal Poly SLO, Alexandria DeFaria, a Local 1 plumber for New York City, and Nadine Taylor, an associate at Beyer Blinder Belle Architects.
The panel confirmed that being a young woman of color in the construction industry can still be stressful. The women shared insights about how they handle the day-to-day and what inspires them on the job.
Crucial Role Models
Many young women don’t consider construction as a viable career choice before seeing a successful woman in the industry. It was Nadine Taylor’s case.
“I hadn’t ever thought of architecture as a career. I never thought that was an option for me,” Taylor said. And yet, she dreamed of becoming someone who could make an impact on the world.
It wasn’t until a school principal recommended Taylor attend an ACE event that encourages high school students to engage with STEM topics, she realized architecture could be the field for her.
“That was the first time I actually saw someone who looked similar to me in construction. She was a woman from India, and she was a mechanical engineer,” she said. “Just seeing her really made me feel I could do it.”
Taylor is now an ACE leader and a member of the board, providing an example to other young women.
Alexandria DeFaria echoes the sentiment, having gotten her own wake-up call from a program called Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW). “I wanted to get into the industry, but I was unsure since I am a woman. I found NEW, and they helped me with the process of joining the union,” she said.
DeFaria got more than just a job by attending NEW. By starting a construction career, she became more self-sufficient, both financially and in household maintenance. Having grown up in a single-parent home, she saw her mom’s vulnerability to being taken advantage of when she called in workers for home repair.
“In one instance, a man came and took the money and never returned,” DeFaria said.
Now as a plumber, she can help herself, her mother, and others in the community. “I just hope that women take these roles and be head of household because it’s a good feeling to be able to provide for your family,” DeFaria said.
Make Yourself Heard
As geared up as they were to enter into a construction career, being the only woman of color sometimes felt daunting. Hephzibah Dadala related that looking the way she does causes some raised eyebrows on site, as well as some out-of-turn comments.
“Being on the site is not easy. It’s not easy being the youngest, or the only female, but I still do that every day,” she said.
DeFaria said that while those incidents still do happen, they shouldn’t discourage women. Should a woman find herself in such a situation, it’s best to relay the incident to superiors or human resources.
“Nowadays, they take sexual harassment and things of that sort very seriously. If you do need someone to advocate for you, definitely speak up. Don’t keep it to yourself.”
“When I was new into the field, I felt like there was no one to advocate for me,” Taylor recalled. She spoke up for herself, telling her bosses which type of project she’d like to be on. “Sometimes, you will fall under the radar. That happens, but put yourself on top of it. Make yourself visible.”
The women agreed that showing up day after day, putting in the work, and speaking up for yourself is key to improving the system. Giving up would have denied them the opportunities their careers have offered.
“I definitely recommend that more women get into the field because they’re trying to help us,” DeFaria said.
How Coworkers Can be Allies for Women of Color
Although it’s critical for women of color to speak up for themselves, panelists admitted sometimes voicing their concerns feels like whining. Workplace culture can have a lot to do with how comfortable workers feel speaking up.
“It definitely helped having a lot of young engineers that I could feel comfortable to ask questions to,” Dadala said.
Coworkers can be allies by using their own influence to recognize the work of women of color in the workplace and by speaking out when injustice occurs.
“If someone wants to help somebody else, just watch what’s happening to them. Just be there if something is wrong, then speak up,” DeFaria said.
While the panelists’ reflections echo those of many women across construction, young women of color may be especially susceptible to biases from coworkers. The construction industry can support these young women by providing opportunities and mentorship and allowing them to realize their abilities.