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Building the Case for DE&I in Construction

Kathleen Dobson, Safety Director, Alberici

Building the Case for DE&I in ConstructionKathleen Dobson, Safety Director, Alberici

In terms of age, the construction industry is already diverse. From newly graduated Gen Z’s entering the workforce (born 1997 – 2012) to the last of those in the Post War generation (born from 1928 – 1945), there are five (5) generations of employees actively working in our industry. That diversity equates to a wide range of experiences, qualifications, and education, and forces organizations to understand and work with generational nuances we see everyday. But diversity in our industry is not so widespread that it effectively includes women, persons of color, ethnicity, and social diversity.

In the construction industry, white males make up about 70% or more of our organizations. When women make up 50.8% of our general population, and ethnicity other than white equates to about 40% (US Census 2020 data – Table DP05), why is construction so exclusively white male? 

Our industry is deeply ingrained in family – business owners passed on their businesses to (mostly) their sons. In the building trades, (mostly) sons followed their dads, uncles, brothers, and grandfathers in the craft they grew up around. Only in the last 40 years or so have we seen an increase in women and persons of different ethnicities enter the built industries. Unfortunately, we still see some of the long-standing thoughts, concerns, prejudices, and biases against those groups in our industry. Things I’ve heard – “someone doesn’t have the brain power to run that project; she’ll be too emotional; they’ll never get anything done – you’ll have to do it yourself because they’re lazy; they’re shifty; they’re going to pull a knife on you if they disagree”…AND SO MUCH MORE. That’s uneducated fear and that’s why we need to learn about DE&I and how it will strengthen the industry.

One of the best ways to think about diversity and inclusion is to think of a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces scattered across a table. There are lots of colors, lots of sizes, lots of shapes, but you don’t know what it will look like until you put all the pieces together.

To me, that’s what a successful team looks like. There is lots of diversity in thought, plenty of collaboration through the challenges and in the end, a pretty awesome project.

For the most part, construction does a better job than other industries in terms of wage equity. In the unionized business trades, women fare equally, when they work the equivalent amount of time as their male counterparts. (an apprentice is an apprentice is an apprentice – likewise, a journeyman status means you will make the same wages as your counterpart, regardless of your sex.) Unlike the general population, where there is significant wage disparity – on average, a white woman makes 79 cents on the dollar as compared to her male colleague, for women of color and women of Hispanic makeup, the numbers are much worse; our industry is much more equitable.

When we think of equal versus equitable, think of a job site where gloves are being distributed from the tool crib. Everyone gets a pair of gloves. That’s equality. But if the gloves are all size XL, only a small percentage of workers will receive gloves that fit. That’s inequity. In order to be fully equitable, the tool crib must be stocked with gloves in every size (and for every task).

To the point of this article – making a business case for DE&I. It’s the right thing to do. To paraphrase Game of Thrones - Change is coming. If you’re not growing and changing – you’re dying.

Increasing the population of diverse individuals reduces the risk of someone being the “only” on the job. The only woman – the only Asian man – the only Hispanic woman – the only apprentice. Being the “only” leads to isolation, lack of mentorship, lack of training, and they may not be seen, heard, promoted, or supported. If you’re the “only”, you may be targeted – harassed, intimidated. There is power in numbers and increasing the number of underrepresented pools of workers reduces the possibility of targeted harassment. 

Why aren’t we at a level where we can say we have a diverse, happy, healthy workforce? Often, we aren’t aware. We can’t acknowledge what we don’t see. To reduce the barriers to underrepresented populations in our industry, we must recognize the power of a diverse workforce and the business strength it can bring to our organizations.

Create awareness – don’t wait until high school to start recruiting. Parents are often influencing career choices as early as pre-K. They, along with educators and counselors need to understand the wide range of opportunities in our industry and the great wages that will create a strong livelihood for 30, 40, 50 years or more. We need to expose the industry to them early.

As an example, when we recruit individuals, set aside biases regarding childbearing, childcare, travel, work hours and more. A woman may wish to travel – she may have no desire or plans for children, so make no assumptions when making assignments. Make them on merit, not gender.

Improve sanitary conditions on the jobsite. Increase the number of portable toilets. Assess the best location. Improve the cleanliness of the facilities.

Improve PPE. Assess the need for size, style and selections.

Improving conditions for women will improve conditions for everyone.

Assess the culture of the company. Look at acceptance levels of new persons to the organization or the project. Put a stop to intimidating or harassing behaviors. Let it be known that the bad behaviors will not be tolerated. Assure that you have diversity of thought.

Educate the men in your companies to the challenges faced by those other than white males who work for you. Often men are excluded from DE&I conversations when they need the information more than those who are challenged. Women and minorities already know the issues behind DE&I. Men must know also. Men can become “full diversity partners” (, allies and advocates if they learn what they don’t know. An awareness of sexual or racial biases is essential for the growth of us as individuals and as team members.

As we tie these thoughts together, what tangibles are there to take away?

1. Start the conversation

2. Reflect on your past and present self

3. Talk to leaders to advocate and amplify the conversation

4. Consider unconscious biases and work through them

5. Be intentional in efforts to review policies and procedures

6. Provide the same equitable opportunities across the board

7. Don’t make automatic assumptions on who can lead and advance.

8. Challenge ourselves

9. Expose ourselves to multi-cultural experiences

10. Educate everyone to the benefits of technology

Leaders understand the power of all people. The bottom line on DE&I IS the bottom line. Companies will be much more successful if they  recognize that DE&I is not only the right thing to do, but it is also an economic tool for your company. A diverse organization is an essential business strategy. Placing women and persons of color in key positions increases DE&I and breeds innovation, diversity of thought and increases representation in communities in which we do business.

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