There may be a nationwide construction worker shortage, but that doesn’t mean that the industry isn’t thriving. Estimates from the Associated General Contractors of America show that there are currently 670,000 commercial construction companies that employ more than 7 million workers all across the country. In fact, construction workers are actually among the top occupations rated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for projected job growth over the next decade. In some ways, the shortage of labor can actually be a good thing for individual workers, as it creates more lucrative opportunities by driving wages up.
But those opportunities aren’t always equally shared. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) admits that the number of women employed in the construction industry grew by a staggering 81% between 1985 and 2007. However, by 2017, women still made up only 9.3% of the entire construction workforce.
Still, that doesn’t mean that those women who are in construction deserve to be ignored. Unfortunately, that’s largely what’s happened up until now. Although the average construction worker or laborer may walk more than 30,000 steps per day, regardless of gender, they’re certainly treated differently on the job. In male-dominated fields, women are more likely to be harassed and discriminated against. They’re also more likely to be paid less than their male counterparts. While studies do show that women are increasingly entering male-dominated sectors and taking on jobs that were traditionally seen as being performed by men, median earnings for women in these positions are 29% lower than those of men.
It’s not just unfair wages or gender-based harassment that’s an issue for female construction workers. In many cases, the protective equipment on which these workers rely is actually designed to put them at a disadvantage. That’s what Jane Henry noticed in 2017, when she was suddenly faced with the prospect of cleaning up her decimated home after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. She purchased protective gloves from the hardware store and got to work hauling debris into a dumpster. But when she injured her hand after her glove came flying off, she realized that there was a major design flaw. The glove was the correct size, she discovered, but the supposedly unisex style left too much room in the fingertips and allowed the glove to easily slip off her hand. She ended up taking her gloves apart and restitching them to create a proper fit. And when women started asking her where she purchased her customized gloves, Henry had an epiphany: there’s a real market for workwear specifically made for female laborers.
A few months later, Henry launched SheHerWork, a line of products made to fit the size of women’s hands, eyes, and ears — and fastens in the correct direction as it relates to other women’s clothing. In focus groups, other women expressed to Henry that the improperly sized gear and clothing they had to wear would often reduce productivity and morale. Even more concerning was the fact that they also said their “unisex” gear actually made them more vulnerable to workplace accidents. Considering that 15 out of every 100,000 construction workers die due to on-the-job accidents, Henry wanted to do everything in her power to ensure women felt safe when they put on the clothing and gear that is intended to protect them.
Earlier this month, SeeHerWork launched an event series to bring skilled trade workers and laborers together, to promote awareness surrounding these issues, and to highlight the fact that many of the industry’s major manufacturers are purposefully trying to quash inventions like Henry’s that could make construction workers safer.
According to the press release, “The #SeeHerWork event series will provide a safe space for the first public dialogue about the current workwear Fit Compliance standards set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and call on Congress for stricter penalties towards unfair trade practices by major manufacturers that are suppressing safety innovations like SeeHerWork through some of these standards.”
Fortunately, SeeHerWork does have a wealth of support from other VIPs in the industry. But just as countless women have experienced across a plethora of sectors, it will likely be an uphill battle to have their needs widely recognized and addressed.