While in nearly every office, women make up roughly half the workforce, you might only find one woman among 100 men on the average construction site. Twenty-two years into the 21st century, and more than a century since women started entering the commercial workforce in numbers, diversity and equality are still two of the most critical concepts in the South African workplace. Clearly, these idealistic concepts haven’t made much headway into blue-collar professions in plumbing and construction.
In 1920s South Africa, with the First World War (1914-1918) over, the pattern of female employment began to change. The war and the protectionist policy of the Pact government under JBM Hertzog (who wanted to help the poor get back on their feet) both boosted the growth of the manufacturing industry. Women of all racial groups slowly began to gravitate to the towns and were drawn into the labour market. In the 1920s there were not yet any restrictions on the mobility or settlement of African women.
Construction and plumbing are still considered a man’s domain with just 3% of construction workers being female, most of whom hold office jobs. Are women not interested in construction trades? Are they not qualified? Not welcome? Do many South African women perceive plumbing and construction as unfeminine, and so avoid those roles?
There’s not just one thing that contributes to the lack of females in the profession. Recruitment bias, company cultures where harassment isn’t thoroughly addressed and even reasons as simple as tools and gear not made for women in mind, all play a critical role in why more women aren’t considering building as a career.
It wasn’t always this way
The following is taken from ‘Rosie the Riveter to Joe the Plumber: The History of Blue Collar Equality in the US’:
During World War II, the US faced a severe shortage of industrial labourers. Young men had previously composed the backbone of this labour force and were now fighting in the war. The country therefore turned to the women still at home. In 1943, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation unveiled its Rosie the Riveter poster, showing a serious-faced woman dressed in a blue jumpsuit with a red bandana and flexing some serious biceps. Rosie became an icon.
Roughly 35% of American women entered the workforce during World War II, many serving as Rosies — industrial factory workers. They earned about 50% of a man’s wage for their labour, and many were let go after the war to make way for the returning men. Others left as social pressures changed from the needs of wartime to the needs of a country booming with babies.
Even the power feminist movement that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s never emphasised women’s work in the trades. As women increasingly entered the workforce, they tended to take jobs as teachers, nurses, secretaries and other pink-collar employment with movement leaders pushing for white-collar opportunities, not blue-collar ones.
Just as more women were heading out to jobs, the prestige of blue-collar professions tanked. Employees in construction drew hourly wages, not salaries, and they worked in dirty, noisy environments, which caused Americans to label these jobs as ‘bad’. The situation didn’t shift until 2008 when Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, herself the product of a blue-collar home, introduced America to her campaign standard bearer — Joe the Plumber, a blue-collar man who, while he couldn’t carry Palin’s campaign to victory, did reignite a national conversation about industrial work.
Burdened with student loans themselves for college degrees that hadn’t propelled them as far as they’d hoped, American parents began encouraging teenagers to consider skilled trades training instead of pricey humanities degrees. A plumber holds a well-paid, recession-proof skill, they said, and a history degree has little utility in the workforce. For many middle-class Americans, the future of staying in the middle-class depended upon industrial jobs, not a college education. However, were parents encouraging their daughters to take this route or just their sons?
What is equality?
When South Africans talk positively about equality, they typically mean equality at work not at home. Young South Africans commonly say they value working with people of other genders, races, religions, and sexual orientations. However, while it was once acceptable to employ a variety of people, modern South Africans expect companies to balance diversity at all levels. It’s not enough to hire a woman or black person and call yourself diverse, for example, if all the employees of one demography are stuck in low paid jobs. It’s not enough for women to work in the construction office, either, if they aren’t welcomed and accommodated on the site.
Merging the concepts of blue collar jobs and workplace equity hasn’t happened at yet. Women still aren’t considering or training for traditionally male set ups such as construction sites. They should be.
Hire more women, make more money
Construction companies that are gender diverse are typically more profitable, according to the Peterson Institute. It reports that companies who were in the top 25% in gender diversity of their workforce were 46% more likely to outperform their industry average.
Women bring a valuable perspective as they often see things men don’t, just as men see things women don’t. For instance, single female homeowners feel more comfortable with women plumbers and other home service professionals. Many unpartnered women feel uncomfortable with a man they don’t know coming into their home to work. A qualified woman can provide the same service without making the customer feel ill at ease.
Girls shouldn’t miss out on these lucrative and exciting career options. After all, plumbers and construction workers can earn good wages and hold recession-proof skills.
Written by Eamonn Ryan