History of Women in Construction
Whether digging trenches or designing skyscrapers, women throughout history have left their professional mark on the construction industry.
Women are making important headway into the traditionally male-dominated field of construction, from business ownership to skilled trades. Today, women represent a little more than 10 percent of the construction industry, and the number of women entering construction-related trades has been steadily increasing for decades.
Women’s job growth in construction is nearly five times faster than job growth in the field overall. In 2019, the share of women working in construction hit a 20-year high.
The number of women entering the industry may be making headlines today, but that doesn’t mean that there have never been “women at work.” The history of women in construction is longer than you might think, stretching back as far as the Middle Ages.
Medieval Women in Construction
Although there is some archaeological evidence that women performed manual labor on worksites in ancient times, the first written record of women construction workers dates to 13th-century Spain. Official records noted a group of women day laborers working on stone and wood structures in the city of Navarre.
Historians unearthed records of women construction laborers and skilled tradespeople from the 13th to the 17th centuries in England, France, Germany and Spain. Record-keeping was spotty during the Middle Ages, so it’s impossible to know for certain how widespread this practice was.
In addition, it was socially unacceptable to record construction labor by women as wage-earning work. Women were considered physically incapable of heavy labor, and working outside the domestic confines was seen as immoral. To circumvent these issues, women laborers were often left off official records or noted only by gender without specifying a proper name or work role.
Despite this underreporting, historians believe poor women routinely worked as unskilled day laborers on construction sites to carry water, dig ditches for foundation walls, thatch roofs and mix mortar. Women in skilled building trades, on the other hand, were middle-class. They picked up masonry, carpentry or other crafts from their fathers or husbands.
The ranks of women as unskilled workers and tradespeople thinned severely during Europe’s economic crises of the 16th and 17th centuries, as menial tasks fell to unemployed and destitute men. Membership in trade guilds was restricted through inheritance along the male line, cutting out wives and daughters who previously had been allowed to continue the family business.
Women in Construction After the Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century brought an economic boom in Europe and the U.S. As the labor market expanded, women returned to construction sites as laborers and tradespeople, this time with less social condemnation.
By the late 19th century, the first women engineers and architects began to stand out. Engineer Emily Warren Roebling directed construction of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband Washington Roebling fell ill. She was so instrumental to the success of the project that when the bridge opened in 1883, she rode with President Chester A. Arthur across its full length.
In addition, Ethel Charles became the first woman to be accepted into the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1898. American Julia Morgan was the first woman admitted to the prestigious École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts school of architecture in Paris in 1902, and the first woman architect licensed in California in 1904. And in 1926, Lillian Moller Gilbreth joined the American Society of Mechanical Engineers as its first female member.
World War II marked one of the most important periods for women in construction and the overall labor force. While tens of thousands of men fought on the front lines, women took over entire industries previously considered unsuitable to their physical or mental skills.
From crane operators and welders in shipyards to electrical engineers and mechanics in factories, women suddenly dominated sectors long reserved for men. When women were summarily fired from these jobs after troops returned, their dissatisfaction simmered and eventually kicked off the feminist movements of the 1960s.
The mid-1960s saw passage of the first laws protecting women in the workforce, although it wasn’t until 1979 that Barbara Res was put in charge of the construction of Trump Tower. She was the first woman foreman to oversee a major American construction project from groundbreaking to completion.
Modern Women in Construction
Women make up a significant proportion of the labor market in construction today, and the number of women entering construction management and the skilled trades is on the rise. That’s because more women are earning STEM-related degrees, and the gender wage gap in construction is one of the narrowest in any industry. While women overall earn 81 cents for every dollar earned by men, that figure rises to 94 cents for women in construction.
It also helps that various professional associations offer support and networking opportunities for women owners, managers and tradespeople. Non-profit organizations empower women to enter construction, engineering and demolition industries.
Women have come a long way since medieval ditch-digging. But more needs to be done for women to overcome the lingering discrimination that keeps them from reaching their highest potential across the construction industry.