Empowering Women in Construction with Safer, More Inclusive Workplaces

Too long have women been held back in construction due to safety and inclusion issues. Vicki O'Leary is stepping up to break down barriers and drive change for gender equality.

Soni Brown, Contributor, Data Center Knowledge

May 11, 2023

5 Min Read
female ironworker

The construction industry has seen a record number of women taking trade jobs. The industry's skilled labor shortage and a shift in diversity hiring goals, focusing on the safety and inclusion of women, are the reasons behind this change.

However, Vicki O'Leary, Ironworkers International's director of diversity and an ironworker herself for more than 30 years, knows women are still being held back in the construction field and so has championed this cause. In an interview with Data Center Knowledge, O'Leary said only 4% of women work in skilled trade jobs on construction sites, while 11% are in construction as engineers, project managers, and safety personnel. It was back in 1978 that President Jimmy Carter set a goal of getting 6.9% women in the trades, she added.

A lack of safety for women working in construction is a major reason why the number of tradeswomen are still low, something O'Leary experienced firsthand, which is why she is working to make changes. When she started as an ironworker in the 1980s, her brother, also an ironworker, was worried about her being victimized because women weren't welcomed on job sites.

"He was scared to death for me to get in," says O'Leary.

In 1988, O'Leary feared for her life on the job for the first time. She was pulling up a perimeter cable without fall protection on the 32nd floor of a building's outside perimeter. A colleague decided to start jerking her cable while yelling at her. O'Leary feared being knocked off the building, and the man's action terrified her because he showed "no respect for my life at that moment."

Related:Women in Tech Is More Than a Corporate Training Exercise

"We should never be fearful that somebody is intentionally going to try to harm you," O'Leary says.

O'Leary pulled quote


The skilled labor shortage is prompting companies to recruit more women than ever before and keep them in the field, and O'Leary is working hard to ensure tradeswomen today don't experience the harassment she experienced. In fact, the number of construction job openings increased by 129,000 positions in February, even as hiring decreased by 18,000, according to a report from the Labor Department released in April.

In 2022, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo announced the Million Women in Construction Initiative, which aims to double the number of women in construction, from 1 million to 2 million, over the next 10 years. The Biden-Harris administration hopes that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, along with the CHIPS and Science Act, will open more doors for women and minorities.

'Be That One Guy' to Stand Up to Victims of Physical and Psychological Violence

Related:Women in Tech Rarely Earn the Title of CEO

Being in construction is hard work, but O'Leary made it clear that that's not why more women aren't entering or remaining in the field.

"Women don't leave the construction industry because the work is too hard. They leave because of the hostile work environment in which they're working," O'Leary said. "It's not that the job site is dirty, it's not that it's too cold or it's hot. There are all those things, but it's how they're treated on the job."

Through O'Leary's leadership, North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU) has implemented comprehensive programs to address these issues and create a more inclusive and safe workplace for all.

O'Leary believes that small changes will steamroll into larger benefits in recruiting and retaining women, a belief that led to the creation of the groundbreaking "Be That One Guy" program, which aims to combat harassment, foster respect, and promote an inclusive culture in the construction industry.

After the bludgeoning to death of Outi Hicks, a carpenter apprentice in Fresno, California, in 2017 by a coworker, O'Leary and fellow ironworkers launched the "Be That One Guy" campaign. "Be That One Guy" seeks to engage male workers as allies in the fight against harassment and to encourage them to take an active role in creating safe and supportive environments for women on construction sites.

Through educational workshops, awareness campaigns, and policy advocacy, significant progress has been made in challenging harmful behaviors and fostering a more inclusive construction industry, she says.

O'Leary believes that creating a safer workforce benefits not only women but everyone involved, as positive changes have a ripple effect. She emphasizes that not only does hazing harm the victims, but it also negatively impacts productivity on construction sites and can be costly, especially when it comes to training and placing apprentices.

Intervention in Action

Marquia Wooten, a heavy equipment operator and the director of RISE Up (Respect, Inclusion, Safety and Equity in the Construction Trades) at ANEW, the oldest pre-apprenticeship program, experienced firsthand how intervention in a harassing situation can save a job. She faced targeted name-calling and doubts about her qualifications from a colleague. Despite contemplating quitting, Wooten realized the importance of her job for supporting her family and recognized that it is the culture, not the compensation, that often discourages women from staying in the industry.

Wooten, being both a woman and an African-American, understands the unique challenges faced on multiple fronts. The intervention by someone against her abuser stemmed the abuse. Although the abuser faced no consequences, the overall attitude on the site improved.

Changing the culture requires commitment from leadership, according to O'Leary, but the effort is undoubtedly worthwhile. Supervisors who resort to yelling and screaming do not motivate employees to work harder; in fact, it may even decrease productivity. Pushing the team to achieve results shouldn't involve belittling individuals.

O'Leary's exceptional contributions to the trades and her ongoing efforts to improve working conditions for women have gained widespread recognition. Her dedication and leadership have not gone unnoticed, as she is scheduled to deliver a keynote speech at the upcoming Women in Construction Conference May 15-17. This conference aims to inspire and empower women in the construction industry while emphasizing the need for continued progress in achieving gender equity.

About the Author(s)

Soni Brown

Contributor, Data Center Knowledge

Soni Brown is a freelance content writer for Data Center Knowledge. In her writing and reporting roles she creates compelling content for stakeholders in the data center industry. She can be found on here: @neonscrawl.

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