Sexual Harassment in the Hard-Hat Industries is a Big Problem

21 November 2017

Anyone who has been paying attention to the news the last few weeks will know that sexual harassment is pervasive across all of society. The stories keep coming out about sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, showing that it’s an issue that crosses class boundaries, as well as industries. In fact, the biggest survey ever produced focusing on workplace harassment found that the two industries with the highest rate of incidents were the construction, arts, and entertainment industry. What’s going on in Hollywood might be garnering all the headlines, but the harassment that occurs in the hard-hat industries is just as insidious. If the hard-hat industries are serious about innovating and making themselves attractive places to work for younger workers, they need to tackle these ingrained problems.

The first and most important thing to understand about sexual harassment in the construction industry is that it is very commonplace. According to the survey produced by Opportunity Now, and conducted by Price Waterhouse Cooper, 59% of women aged 28-40, involved in the construction industry, have been the subject of sexual harassment. This figure is almost too big to be believed. It means that a woman who chooses to work in construction is more likely than not to be sexually harassed at some point in her professional life. How can the construction industry expect to modernize and attract more women in the workforce when such behavior is still so frequent?

There are many different types of behavior that constitute sexual harassment at work and workers need to be made aware of them. Starting at orientations, there should be training that educates workers on the subject of sexual harassment. The status or classification of a worker is not an excuse in cases of sexual harassment. Managers, permanent workers and contractors are all responsible for their actions if they create a hostile work environment. The person who feels harassed does not necessarily have to be the person at who the actions are directed, if they feel affected, they are still considered the victim.

Actions that constitute sexual harassment at work include:

  • Sexual or inappropriate jokes.
  • Inappropriate touching.
  • Inappropriate or sexual staring.
  • Making sexual comments.
  • Displaying sexually suggestive posters.
  • Mocking someone because of their gender or sexual orientation.
  • Sending sexual emails or messages.
  • Sharing sexual jokes or telling sexual stories.

The important takeaway is that any sexual behavior that contributes to the creation of a hostile workplace is deemed to be sexual harassment.

When we think of sexual harassment in the construction industry, wolf-whistling is probably one of the first things that comes to mind. Maybe 30 years ago, this kind of behavior might have been seen as a vulgar but harmless act, done by workers just letting off a bit of steam. However, that was then, this is now, and times have changed. Awareness of sexual harassment is far higher in 2017 than it was in times gone by, even if the steps being taken to tackle it leave a lot to be desired. The truth is that it was only ever men who perceived their behavior to be harmless fun. Female workers had a much different view. However, women make up a far smaller proportion of the workforce. In the US in 2016, there were 10,328,000 construction workers and only 939,000 of these were women. When less than 10% of workers in the construction industry are women, the opinion of the majority becomes the dominant opinion and those who are being harassed don’t report it for fear of being ostracized.

The male-dominated culture of construction contributes to the problems of sexual harassment. Construction is perceived by young people to be boring, tedious, dirty, hazardous and gender-imbalanced, according to a report done on the image of the construction industry. Even though construction is one of the most technically advanced industries in the world, this message is not getting across. The industry is not attractive to millennials, particularly women, a situation which is exacerbating the skills shortage the industry is currently experiencing. Research from The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that a 50 percent reduction in the gender gap in labor force participation could boost a country’s GDP by 6 percent by 2030. The industry’s image needs to be revamped so that more women, and young people in general, feel excited about pursuing a career in construction. Workers in construction can travel the world, work on amazing projects using the latest technology in design and development, but this message is not being properly delivered.

The shortage of skilled labor is a major concern for construction companies and increasing the number of women in the industry is one part of the solution to this problem. However, so far there has been little progress made in this area and developed countries are relying more on more on migrant workers as older workers retire. Construction ranks at, or near, the top of the lists of the most male-dominated industries. This might have made sense in the past when being physically strong was more of a requisite in construction, but technical advances mean that a lot of work does not involve direct physical labor. The lack of women working in the industry leads to a male-dominated culture which can allow a hostile environment for women to fester.

Similar problems exist across the board in the hard-hat industries. In the extraction industry (Mining, oil and gas), men outnumber women at a very similar rate. Women make up just 10% of all large scale projects in the extraction field, according to a 2013 Price Waterhouse Cooper Report. In remote areas, where much of the extraction industry takes place, some women even feel obliged to provide sexual favors in order to keep their job, according to a World Bank report. The culture of the mining industry is a major contributing factor to sexual harassment.

The report details the case of a mine in Marikana, South Africa, where women are subjected to severe levels of sexual workplace harassment at work. There is almost no representation of women in management, who the women say are responsible for a lot of the workplace harassment. Female workers feel that they have to give sexual favors to advance their careers, and with a lack of management representation, this creates a culture of silence, where no one feels comfortable to speak out. One very important factor that the female workers mention is the lack of available amenities for women.

“There are only two toilets in the section. One for men and one for women. For 70 workers. But it’s so far to walk and it’s dark, dark, dark. Even if you scream, no-one is going to hear you,” one female employee said.

This example is illustrative of the situation across a lot of the hard-hat industry, where women are to a degree marginalised within the workforce. Their concerns, even basic things like having the necessary amenities, are often ignored by management. Creating a positive and inclusive work environment is possibly the most important step to preventing workplace harassment in the workplace. This requires a greater number of women in the workforce, including at management levels, as well as a commitment from management to create a work environment that precludes workplace harassment.

There are several things that can be done to solve the issue of workplace harassment in the construction and other hard-hat industries. Workers at all levels need to receive proper training on the issue so that they’re aware that improper behavior can constitute sexual harassment. However, the number one problem is the issue of representation of women in the workforce in the hard-hat industries, which is currently at, or below, 10%. The issue of under-representation causes women currently in the workforce to be ostracised and exploited, while the labor shortage in many of the hard-hat industries should make attracting more women an economic, as well as moral, priority. Sexual workplace harassment is deeply ingrained in the hard-hat industries and it is a problem that demands a comprehensive solution, and soon.

workplace harassment

Jenny Snook

Jenny Snook is content executive at GoContractor with the job of researching the latest health and safety trends in the heavy industry. Her past-experience includes the research of large museum collections such as the Louth County Museum, many from the industrial age.

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