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Studies Shed Light on Gender Imbalance in Construction

More Barriers, Pervasive Bias Suppress Women’s Representation in Industry

By Robert Herschbach

female construction worker

Three new studies by UMD researchers show that women face pervasive bias throughout the construction industry.

Photo by iStock

For women, advancing in the architecture, engineering and construction industry generally means having to climb career ladders with more rungs than men of similar status—working more jobs, earning more advanced degrees and being stereotyped as less likable—according to three new studies by University of Maryland researchers.

To arrive at their findings showing pervasive bias throughout the industry, they combed through the websites of the top 400 U.S. engineering contractors, as well as their financial statements, pinpointing just how many women were represented on their leadership teams. In subsequent work, the team looked further down the corporate ladder, tracking female representation at levels ranging from directors to executives.

“Those of us who have worked alongside women in civil engineering and related fields have heard the stories,” said UMD doctoral student Paul Hickey, who led the studies while working under the supervision of civil and environmental engineering Professor Qingbin Cui. “Until now, however, there hadn’t been any real quantification of the problem. A scientific approach was needed in order to drill down and identify what’s been going on.”

Papers detailing Cui and Hickey’s research were published in the November 2022 issue of the Journal of Management in Engineering (JME) and in a JME special collection on diversity and inclusion in the engineering-construction industry. A third paper is forthcoming.

Hickey points to a personal reason for undertaking the research: he’s dedicated it to his late wife, Bonnie, a Maryland Engineering grad whose career was in civil engineering.

“I saw firsthand the kinds of obstacles she faced because of her gender,” he said. Those included being routinely passed over for roles she was qualified for—sometimes in favor of less-experienced men whom she had trained—and working in companies where cosmetic commitments to diversity allowed women into the C-suite, but limited them to secondary or non-engineering-focused roles, Hickey said. While working on projects, she was subjected inappropriate behavior, included being targeted with foul language, and frequently discovered male contractors trying to circumvent her authority by asking her male supervisors for project approvals, he said.

To more clearly understand how such treatment affects women in the industry, fellow CEE doctoral student and co-author Abdolmajid Erfani, a data science specialist, used AI and machine learning tools to analyze thousands of LinkedIn pages and develop predictive models showing how gender affects career paths.

The studies show that 53% of women who achieve leadership roles have advanced degrees, compared to 31.2% of men, the researchers found. Their careers are more varied, too, with LinkedIn profiles of successful women leaders in construction showing that they typically work for 56% more companies, hold 19% more job titles, and are 73% more likely to hold a graduate degree, compared to men.

Meanwhile, as a woman’s perceived level of competence rises, her perceived likeability diminishes—a finding gleaned from computer analysis of the language used in LinkedIn recommendations, comments and posts.

Men and women have such markedly different experiences that computer algorithms can readily be trained to predict an anonymous executive’s gender based on career path data, said Erfani. “Our machine learning tools were able to achieve around 90% accuracy,” he said.

The hurdles found at all career levels may help explain why many women who study engineering in college do not end up building careers in the field. Even though women account for about 22% of all civil and environmental engineering degrees awarded during the past 24 years, they constitute only 10.9% of the industry workforce and 3.9% of engineering executives.

“The bottom line is that women have to work harder to make it,” Cui said. “And when they get to the boardroom, they still have to prove themselves in a way that is less true of their male colleagues.”

Recruitment alone cannot solve the problem, Cui said. “We’re just not doing a good job of promoting women to leadership positions, where they can then become role models and mentors.”

In 2021, the team presented partial findings at the Groundbreaking Women in Construction virtual meeting. “The response was overwhelming," Hickey said. “People kept telling us, ‘This is exactly what I’ve experienced in my career, but nobody would listen.’”

The study didn’t stop there, however. Hickey and his collaborators also examined cases where positive change has taken place and were able to identify some of the reasons why.

One key indicator, he said, is whether a company has made a public commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion that goes beyond the equal employment opportunity required by law. “That could mean maintaining a diversity program, including diversity in the mission and vision statement, or even just commemorating events such as International Women’s Day,” Hickey said. “When a company publicly commits to diversity goals, it puts the spotlight on them and acts as a catalyst for improvement.”

Green companies—that is, companies that are focused on environmentally beneficial approaches to engineering—also tend to provide more opportunities for women, as do firms involved with public-private partnerships and other innovations within the industry, the researchers found.

“We don’t want this to be a Ph.D. that sits on a shelf,” Hickey said. “Our goal is to generate change and create opportunities in the industry.”



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