Female hardhats breaking barriers

While there are more women working on construction sites than 40 years ago, they’re still drastically underrepresented and face a more unique set of challenges than in other male-dominated industries

From left: Skanska USA’s Theodora Diamantis, Evergreen Construction’s Barbara Kavovit, Association of Women Construction Workers of America’s Herlema Owens, Turner Construction’s Kim Neuscheler, Lendlease’s Laura Bush, AECOM Tishman’s Anita Woolley Nelson and JT Magen’s Catherine Torsney O’Driscoll. Photograph by Sasha Maslov
From left: Skanska USA’s Theodora Diamantis, Evergreen Construction’s Barbara Kavovit, Association of Women Construction Workers of America’s Herlema Owens, Turner Construction’s Kim Neuscheler, Lendlease’s Laura Bush, AECOM Tishman’s Anita Woolley Nelson and JT Magen’s Catherine Torsney O’Driscoll. Photograph by Sasha Maslov

Tierra Williams quickly discovered construction sites aren’t always welcoming places for women.

Williams joined Trade Off, a Nassau County-based construction management firm, in 2015 after a year of unemployment. But last year she became pregnant, and her request for light duty, according to Williams, was denied. Trade Off, like many other construction firms, didn’t offer paid leave for pregnant trade workers. So Williams took a break from work and returned after a month — in fear of losing her job. Her friends and boyfriend, who also worked on the construction site, helped her manage larger loads.

Two weeks after returning to work and 12 weeks into her pregnancy, Williams said, she miscarried.

While Williams has yet to take legal action against her employer over the circumstances of her miscarriage, she filed a complaint in December with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging continued sexual harassment while working at Related Companies’ 520 West 30th Street. In addition to constant lewd and inappropriate comments from her male co-workers, one of the foreman would stand outside the restroom and stare at Williams menacingly, according to the complaint, filed against Trade Off and Related. When she confronted the foreman to explain that she needed to use the bathroom often due to her recent miscarriage, he allegedly responded: “Bitch, I do what the fuck I want to do. I don’t know who you think you’re talking to.”

After speaking to a supervisor about this and other incidents, Williams said, she was fired. Representatives for Trade Off and Related declined to comment.

Like many industries, construction is struggling with allegations of discrimination and sexual harassment, which in some cases are only coming to light now, in the midst of the #MeToo movement. While women in construction face many of the same challenges that spring up in other male-dominated industries, they also grapple with several unique ones. Many associate construction with the image of tough-looking men who spend long hours doing physically draining work. For a long time, a woman on a construction site was an anomaly — and on some projects, that’s still the case. Additionally, the work itself is inflexible and requires long hours, making child care and other aspects of work-life balance particularly difficult.

“When you are on a worksite, it’s especially tough if you are a woman,” said Lou Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers Association. “I wouldn’t necessarily call construction workers the most sensitive people in the world. It’s a culture, and it takes time to change that culture.”

Though there’s been considerable progress in the industry over the past four decades, and some companies have launched ambitious initiatives to diversify their workforces, women remain underrepresented both on the corporate level — working directly  for construction managers — and on job sites. Eleven of the top 12 most active general contractors and construction management firms last year — accounting for both ground-up and interior renovation work — had management teams made up of more than 50 percent men, according to an analysis by The Real Deal. One of the 11 firms had a 55/45 split, but for the most part, most management teams were more than 70 percent male. Meanwhile, one firm did not respond to TRD’s inquiries, and no details  of its leadership team were publicly available.

Still, the nature of construction work isn’t what ultimately keeps women away from the industry, said Jane LaTour, a longtime labor activist and author of “Sisters in the Brotherhoods.”

“They never say that it’s the work itself that drives them out,” LaTour said. “They always say it’s the bullshit around it. It’s the harassment that makes it so hard.”

By the numbers

Working in construction  is often billed as an avenue to the middle class: A person learns a skill, and if they work hard, they will succeed. Such a mythos, however, fails to account for the barriers to both entry and retention for women, especially minorities.

In the article “Black Women and Race and Gender Tensions in the Trades,” Roberta Hunte, an assistant professor at Portland State University whose research focuses on race and gender discrimination in the building trades, says, “This concept of meritocracy ignores the friends, brothers, and in-laws networks among white men that encourage their inclusion and retention as tradespeople. Women and black people rarely have these existing relationships.”

Of the 250,270 construction workers who were employed in New York City in 2016, only 7.6 percent — 19,119 — were women, according to the latest numbers available from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. That’s the same percentage seen in 2015 and 2014 but an improvement from 2.2 percent in 2005, according to Census data.

Nationally, the numbers aren’t much different: Women account for 9.1 percent of the construction workforce. They earn a median of $757 a week, which is 95.7 percent of the median weekly earnings for men — a more equitable rate than in many other industries.

But the disparity is more apparent when looking at the earnings of female minorities. On average, black women earn $0.81 for every dollar paid to non-Hispanic white men working as construction laborers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hispanic women in construction-related occupations take home 71.7 percent of Hispanic men’s pay and only 50.4 percent of white men’s earnings in the field.

Issues of bias, income inequality and harassment, of course, aren’t exclusive to construction — though they perhaps remain pronounced due to the industry’s persistent imbalance in its workforce. According to the critical mass theory, created by economist Thomas Schelling in the 1970s, women need to reach the 30 percent mark in their workforce to shift the culture of a company. Not one of the city’s top 12 most active general contracting and construction management firms has a female CEO, according to TRD’s analysis. More and more women are ascending to vice president and project management roles, but the C-suite — with a few exceptions — remains out of reach.

Anita Woolley Nelson, senior vice president of strategy at AECOM Tishman, said that for the gender breakdown to change, it’s key that more women ascend to leadership roles. Otherwise, it’s difficult for women to envision long-term career paths for themselves.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” she said.

Related Companies’ 520 West 30th Street under construction (Photo by nyconstructionphoto.com)

Part of the challenge is that women still aren’t socialized to pick up tools or consider construction as an option, Hunte said. Even a veteran of the industry like Herlema Owens, a retired member of the Excavators Union Local 731, got into construction reluctantly. Her husband was killed in 1986 during a robbery at a social club the couple owned in Jamaica, Queens. At the time, she was pregnant with her third child and attending beauty school with the goal of doing hair and nails for the infirm and hospitalized. Friends and family members, concerned that work as a beautician wouldn’t immediately provide enough money to support her children, had to force her “kicking and screaming” to consider construction as an alternative career path, she said.

Though it was the pay scale that convinced her to give the profession a chance, she also discovered that construction was the “love of [her] life.” Now, as president of the Association of Women Construction Workers of America, an organization she founded in 2006 to help women advance in the industry, she tries to convince women that construction is an attractive option. But it’s not always an easy sell.

“When I try to recruit for women, they look at me like I’m crazy,” Owens said. “They ask, ‘Why would I want to do that?’ and I say, ‘Because you can take care of your family. Aren’t you strong? Haven’t you always wanted to build something?’”

Construction laborers and executives who spoke to TRD agreed that attitudes toward women have improved dramatically in the past decade. Men are increasingly accustomed to seeing a woman on a construction site, and construction management firms are taking extra steps to encourage more diversity. Sara Kendall, vice president of business development at Turner Construction, said she’s found the industry to be “full of opportunity and incredibly rewarding.” She said there’s been a shift toward companies recognizing that their workforces need to include women. Still, in her nearly 20-year career, she’s had people focus on her gender and express surprise that “someone so little” could do the kind of work that she does.

“I’ve walked onto job sites as the boss, and we go and walk up to a foreman or someone who is new, and they immediately turn to the man. A decision needs to be made, and they look at the man,” she said. “There’s just going to be an expectation that you’re not the one in charge. Hopefully, that will change.”

She added, “I’ve also seen the flip side. People have said, ‘Oh my god, it’s so refreshing to have a woman in this meeting. Before you got here, it was just a testosterone pit of misery.”’

Every new construction project is a blank slate — meaning workers must prove their worth anew. Many of the women who spoke to TRD said they often feel like they have to work even harder to gain the respect of their male counterparts, to show that they belong onsite.

Barbara Kavovit, founder of Evergreen Construction, a firm that focuses on interior renovations, said she sometimes goes to extra lengths to show prospective clients that she’s reliable.

“I stay in the client’s face. I show that I will be available 24/7,” she said. “What I go through to get work is probably five times more aggressive than anybody else, because I have to keep proving myself over and over.”

But there’s still a silver lining, according to Kim Neuscheler, a vice president and project executive at Turner Construction: Once a woman’s skills are recognized, she’ll often become the go-to person. To illustrate her point, she recalled a moment in the movie “Hidden Figures” in which astronaut John Glenn tells NASA to “get the girl to check the numbers” — referring to mathematician Katherine Johnson. It was her expertise he wanted before launching into space.

A rendering of 520 West 30th Street

“I think things have changed and are changing every day,” said Catherine  Torsney O’Driscoll, project manager at JT Magen & Company. “When you come on a job site with so many men, it can be intimidating, but I don’t think that should stop anyone from pursuing their career.”

While proficiency might change the minds of many — if not most — male co-workers, others aren’t swayed. Francoise Jacobsohn, who’s been an advocate for tradeswomen since the 1970s, said the main issue isn’t that mistreatment in construction is widespread; it’s that a culture that allows such behavior persists.

“In construction, there are not more bad apples than anywhere else. However, there’s so many more men,” she said. “Women are swimming upstream and having to deal with a culture that turns a blind eye to the boys-will-be-boys mentality.”

Toxic sites

Gender-based bias in the construction industry manifests in different forms — as sexual harassment, but also in more covert actions, like repeatedly relegating women to less skill-intensive roles on site.   

“Most of the discrimination isn’t overt,” Jacobsohn said.  “It’s death by 1,000 paper cuts.”

Julia Pateman, a construction management major at a Rhode Island University and intern at Turner, thinks that she’s likely treated better at times because she has short hair and doesn’t look stereotypically feminine. At the same time, she’s one of 65 people in her major, of whom only two are women. As a result, she feels like professors put a disproportionate amount of pressure on her.

“When you are one of the only women to represent an entire group of women, there’s just so much responsibility,” she said. “Guys in my class can just do OK and receive so much credit.”

Neuscheler said women also need to be more conscious about their behavior than their male counterparts.

“There’s a gentleman in our office who acts like a lunatic most of the time. He’s got a great heart. He’s passionate about everything. He’s a great builder,” she said. “If I behaved like that as a female, it would be unacceptable behavior. With him, it’s passion.”

Harassment and bias on construction sites, of course, can be more explicit. In a lawsuit filed against Skanska USA, a former CAD engineer, Solange Martinez, alleged that during her time with the construction management company — from 2008 to 2013 — she was paid at a rate of $5 less per hour than male counterparts with equivalent experience and responsibilities.

Martinez’s lawsuit, which was filed and settled in 2015, also alleged that she was called a “Dominican whore” and was told to “go back to your country” by another employee. At one point, another Skanska employee allegedly pointed to his crotch and told her to “sit here and take this training.”

In Williams’ EEOC complaint, she accuses Trade Off employees and other contractors at Related’s West 30th Street project of repeatedly commenting on the physical appearance of female workers and suggesting that they wanted to have sex with them. A colleague of hers, Ashley Foster, accused a foreman in the complaint of exposing his genitals to her while working on another Related site, 55 Hudson Yards, and sending her unsolicited photos of his penis.

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Williams doesn’t mention her pregnancy or miscarriage in the EEOC complaint, but her attorney Jason Solotaroff, who has worked with Local 79 laborers’ union, said it may be mentioned in a future lawsuit. It’s not clear whether her work had anything to do with her miscarriage, but the complaint would “explore the connection,” he said.

In many lawsuits, construction site bathrooms and changing rooms are depicted as a stage for gender- and race-based hostility. Jacobsohn recounted that a tradeswoman recently showed her pictures of a bathroom on one construction site that was covered in drawings depicting a rape scene in graphic detail.

“What is that saying? That’s saying women are not welcome,” she said. “Any woman going into that bathroom is not going to feel safe.”

A female construction worker at Extell Development Company’s International Gem Tower site claimed she faced a similar situation. Lataya Ruff, now a journeyperson with certificates in 28 specialty areas, alleged in a 2013 lawsuit that when she was an apprentice, she was isolated from the rest of the workers and assigned menial jobs instead of receiving the same training given to other apprentices.

She was instructed to clean the men’s bathroom by herself everyday, and after some of her male co-workers learned of her role, they smeared feces all over the toilet seats, according to the lawsuit, filed against the project’s construction manager, AECOM Tishman, in Manhattan Federal Court. They also graffitied the walls with racist and sexist comments, including: “Want your balls to itch fuck a black bitch,” and “How do you keep a black boy out of your yard? Hang one in front,” according to the complaint. An illustration of a woman with oversized muscles and a penis also allegedly appeared on a loading dock.   

A foreman on the job allegedly told Ruff that she’d lose her job if she continued to have “trouble with the guys in the job.” The complaint was settled a few months after it was filed. The terms of the settlement aren’t public.

Another complaint against AECOM Tishman, filed in November 2017, claims that a freight elevator operator faced harassment regularly while working at One World Trade Center from 2010 to 2013. According to the lawsuit, male co-workers would touch, push and even spit on Patricia Ann Lorenz. On one occasion, a co-worker allegedly defaced her new union safety jacket, writing across the back: “I Love Cock.” She didn’t learn that her jacket had been vandalized until the end of the day, by which point many of her co-workers had made fun of her behind her back, according to the complaint.

In a response to the lawsuit, AECOM noted that the incident with the jacket occurred but said Lorenz was never an employee of the construction management firm — she was hired to work on the site through Local 14. This is often the case with tradespeople: They are hired for specific jobs but don’t work directly for the construction management firm. The lawsuit was settled as of July 24, 2018.

“We can’t comment on claims from several years ago that have been settled, but we have strong policies and procedures in place to address these types of behaviors and have been at the forefront of industrywide efforts to combat harassment on job sites,” John Gallagher, a spokesperson for AECOM, said in a statement.

Male workers allegedly made frequent derogatory comments about Lorenz’s breasts and other parts of her body.  She also learned that the men’s room was covered in offensive comments and graphic drawings depicting her performing various sex acts, according to the complaint. The walls repeatedly referred to her as a “cunt,” the lawsuit states. 

Still, a lot of harassment goes unreported because women are afraid of retaliation from their co-workers or losing their jobs, according to many of the women who spoke to TRD. They also often don’t want to be labeled troublemakers.

“I think that a lot of people tolerate certain things because that’s their livelihood,” Williams said. “A lot of women don’t complain because you can make a lot of money in construction.”

Owens said that she faced harassment early on in her career and didn’t know where she could turn to report it. She said her organization and others like it help educate women about the protocol for reporting harassment.

One World Trade

“You still have assholes [in the industry],” Owens said. “I know a lot of women who lost interest in the industry just because they didn’t know where to go next.”

From the top

Construction management firms can play key roles in preventing harassment — they set the tone for their company and the subcontractors they hire.

“It comes from the top, from someone like me, or my boss,” said Laura Bush, a senior vice president and project executive with Lendlease. “You have to set a precedent early on, making clear that that’s not acceptable.”

During a tour of a Turner construction site run by Neuscheler, a massive medical facility on York Avenue and 68th Street, she pointed out large black spots spray-painted on the elevator walls. As soon as drawings of male anatomy or other crude images pop up, she said, they are covered. Elly Spicer, who worked as a carpenter for 35 years and now runs a pre-apprenticeship program, said many construction management companies are doing the same. It might seem like a small gesture, but she said it can go a long way.

“I think it changes the whole tenor of a site when you don’t have graphic depictions of the sex act all over elevator walls and the shanties,” Spicer said.

Groups like Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) help outline pathways for potential tradeswomen. The organization offers training and places women in construction jobs — unionized gigs with starting wages that average $17 per hour. Erika Glenn-Byam, who went through NEW’s program and has worked as a journey laborer since 2006, said the good in the industry far outweighs the bad.

“You still have a few guys here and there who have the pride thing going on. Sometimes they do get caught up in their ego,” she said. “I tell my sisters to be assertive. Know yourself. Don’t tolerate that, and learn the job to the best of your capabilities.”

Companies have also employed various policies to make the industry more welcoming to women and minorities. Shawmut Design and Construction created a diversity council a little over a year ago to help address issues of “unconscious bias” at the construction management firm, said CEO Les Hiscoe. He said the company recently interviewed a young person for a project who was polite and extremely prepared. Two male interviewers reported that the candidate seemed unenthusiastic and didn’t have a drive for construction, Hiscoe said. But a female interviewer of the same race as the candidate (which Hiscoe wouldn’t specify) pointed out that there was a cultural disconnect: In this person’s native country, such a respectful and muted performance was customary in an interview, Hiscoe said.      

“We took steps to teach our people examples like this, so that they are better equipped and going into things with a more open mind,” he said. That way, managers don’t default to hiring a “regular construction guy.”

Shawmut also changed its promotion system, making it so that employees companywide are eligible for promotions at two points every year. That allows for the company to keep better track of each employee’s progress and more easily spot wage disparities.

Some changes are more symbolic. Many construction unions have started referring to their members as “brothers and sisters,” although their parent organizations are still referred to as “brotherhoods.” Plaza Construction just rolled out signs at its job sites that say “Men and women at work” instead of just “Men at work.”

“It’s mind-boggling that it’s 2018 and we haven’t wrapped our heads around the fact that women are as good or better in many industries, not just the construction industry,” said Chris Mills, Plaza’s chief operating officer.

Another initiative that aims to provide more flexibility is Skanska USA’s “returnship” program, which helps mothers and others who have taken extended leaves of absence restart their careers, said Theodora Diamantis, an account manager for the company. Before she joined Skanska, she took some time off to raise her four children. Her employer at the time gave her flexibility in hours, so she could continue working to some extent. Skanska is considering implementing a similar option, she said.

Both the private and public sectors have taken steps to encourage more diverse construction workforces. In 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio set the goal of dedicating at least 30 percent of the dollar volume of city contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses by 2021. Martin Loy, president of New Line Structures, noted that many of its clients also set their own MWBE goals. He said his company doesn’t seek out women specifically when hiring but attracts the “best and brightest.”

“It has to be a meritocracy. It can’t just be an old boys’ network, where somebody knows somebody,” he said. He added, “I think smart women attract other smart women.”

BTEA’s Coletti said he’s seen more and more women attend his organization’s meetings, whereas only a handful would show up four or five years ago.

He noted that roughly half of the organization’s 83 certified MWBE and disadvantaged business enterprise firms are owned by women. Still, there’s room for growth: Overall, the BTEA has 858 member firms.

“The numbers are increasing dramatically,” Coletti said. “They are really moving up the ladder and taking on more responsibility in project management roles.”

Baby steps

While the statistics show that women are becoming a larger part of the construction workforce, albeit slowly, there are still certain things about the job that remain fixed, said Nelson. She said advances in technology will help create more flexibility in the profession, but for now, paid time off for onsite workers largely isn’t an option.

“You can’t bring a construction site home with you,” she said. “Until we start building things differently, things aren’t going to change.”

Last year, when the Iron Workers Union announced it would offer six to eight weeks of paid post-delivery maternity leave, it became first of the building trades in the U.S. to offer such a benefit. The union is also offering up to six months of paid pre-delivery leave. Though a few other local unions elsewhere in the country have followed suit, no other major umbrella organizations have announced similar initiatives.

The impetus, in part, for the maternity leave program was the story of an ironworker who had a miscarriage while working on a bridge project, said Vicki O’Leary, a longtime ironworker who now heads the union’s maternity leave program. Bridget Booker, an ironworker from IW Local 112 in Peoria, Illinois, didn’t tell anyone she was pregnant with her fourth child and miscarried at 16 weeks. She returned to work two days later. Booker told her story at a conference in 2016, which was attended by the union’s president.

“Women were hiding their pregnancies. They were wearing big, baggy clothes. Some were getting to their eighth month,” O’Leary said. “We had some women who weren’t even telling their doctors the type of work they were doing because they were afraid that they wouldn’t let them work.”

At the end of last year, the Iron Workers also launched a campaign and trademarked the phrase “Be that one guy” to raise awareness of adverse treatment some women face onsite.

Asked if a paternity leave policy is on the horizon, O’Leary said it was doubtful, since 128,000 of the of the union’s 130,000 members are men.

“Being pregnant doesn’t stop a man from working, and it doesn’t endanger his unborn child,” she said.

Still, she thinks other unions will likely eventually follow suit once they figure out how to pay for it. She said she’s hopeful that it’ll inspire other changes in the industry.

“This is a big step,” O’Leary said. “We’ve got a lot of baby steps ahead, but it definitely makes me hopeful.”