Historically, the construction industry has been dominated by and largely associated with men and defined as an unorthodox occupation for women. Throughout the ages, a woman’s principal responsibilities included raising a family and tending to the house. Meanwhile, the husband served as the provider; the breadwinner. Nevertheless, throughout history, women have contributed to – and have left a profound mark on – the world of construction.
History of Women in Construction
From skilled trades and project management to the ownership of organizations, women continue to make progress in the field of construction. In fact, in the 21st century, females represent more than 10 percent of the construction industry workforce. Moreover, over the course of the past few decades, the number of women who have entered trades related to construction has steadily increased. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), the number of women who held employment in construction reached a 20-year high in 2019. Therefore, further proving that the demographics of this once male-dominated industry are shifting.
While the number of women entering the construction industry may be getting a lot of attention as of late, women at work isn’t a new trend. In fact, women have been making contributions in the field for a lot longer than one might realize. Females have been a key part of the construction industry as far back as the Middle Ages. To pay homage to the tenacity of women, the following is a brief snapshot of the history of women in the construction industry.
Though some archeological proof of females performing manual labor on job sites during ancient times has been unearthed, the Associated Schools of Construction points out that the first written records of women construction workers dates back to Spain during the 13th-century. According to official records, in the Medieval city of Navarre, female day laborers helped build wood and stone structures. Historians also found records of women construction workers and skilled tradespeople in France, Germany, England, and Spain between the 13th and 17th centuries.
It’s important to note that during the Middle Ages, record keeping was not meticulous or accurate. Therefore, there is no way to know for sure how common it was for women to work in construction. The practice could have been much more widespread than the records reveal. Documenting wage-earning labor performed by women during this time was considered unacceptable. Due to their naturally smaller frames and muscle mass, women were deemed incapable of performing heavy labor during the Middle Ages. Therefore, it was viewed as immoral for women to seek employment outside of their traditional domestic roles. In an attempt to circumvent these views, women day laborers were purposely not included in official labor records.
What work would women perform on medieval jobsites?
Despite the purposeful record manipulation, historians think it was commonplace for women of lower socioeconomic status to work as unskilled laborers. This includes mixing mortar, installing thatched roofs, digging ditches for foundations, and even carrying water. However, there are records of middle-class women holding skilled trade positions, such as masonry and carpentry. These skilled trades would be learned from their fathers and husbands.
During the economic crisis that occurred throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, the amount of female unskilled workers and tradespeople dropped dramatically as unemployed men took their place. Membership to trade guilds was restricted to male heirs. Therefore, the daughters and wives of skilled carpenters, masons, and other crafts who had previously taken on the family business were cut out.
During the 18th-century, the United States and Europe saw a massive economic boom. With that boom, the labor market expanded, and women headed back to the construction industry. Women performed work as laborers and skilled laborers, as the social scorn was less severe. The first female architects and engineers were noticed by the latter part of the 19th-century. Emily Warren Roebling is one of the most notable women in the history of construction. An engineer, Roebling directed the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband, Washington Roebling, became ill. She played such a key part in the success of the construction of the now world-famous bridge that in 1883, when it opened, she accompanied President Chester A. Arthur across it.
In 1898, the British Architects accepted the first woman, Ethel Charles. In 1902, Julia Morgan, an American, was the first woman to be admitted into the illustrious Ecole National Superieure de Beaux-Arts school of architecture in Paris. She was also the first woman to become a licensed architect in California Lillian Moller Gilbreth was the first female member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1926.
One of the most monumental periods of women in construction history took place during World War II. As tens of thousands of men took up arms, women took their places in the industries they left behind at home, including construction. During this time, females worked as welders, crane operators, mechanics, electrical engineers, and more.
Fast forward to today and women have cemented themselves in the construction industry. In fact, in the 21st century, females make up a large portion of the labor market. Better yet, the amount of women who are working in skilled trades is constantly rising.
It wasn’t until recently that women began to receive the recognition they deserve. Women have long contributed to and been an important part of the construction industry. It’s safe to assume that their presence and significance will only continue to grow.
Kimberly Remmereid - Contour Construction, Owner
Kimberly was featured in the Omaha Magazine Women in Business issue. Read more here!
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