According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 3.9% of construction workers identify as women. Meanwhile, a separate study by Dodge Construction Network on “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Design and Construction” shows that, among smaller firms, only 2% report having clear standards for increasing diversity that are also used to improve advancement.

Grants Aim to Protect Women in Workplace

Several new initiatives by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) aim to upend those statistics, including a $5 million fund and up to 14 grants for attracting and supporting access to registered apprenticeship programs. Grants key in on industries where women are currently underrepresented, including construction and manufacturing. DOL also announced four grants totaling up to $1 million for preventing and responding to gender-based harassment and violence against underserved and marginalized women workers.

A study by Dodge Construction Network on “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Design and Construction” shows that, among smaller firms, only 2% report having clear standards for increasing diversity that are also used to improve advancement.

Regarding why some firms continue to lack diversity and opportunities for advancement, “There’s a lack of willingness to change,” says Subha Barry, president of Seramount. Sometimes, the issue stems from a fear among leadership members that they will lose power.

“A mentality that it’s a zero-sum game causes individuals to become insular and protective,” he adds. “However, it is important to have an abundance mindset that says there are opportunities for all of us.”

DOL’s Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) grants are administered by the department’s Employment and Training Administration and Women’s Bureau. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and the DOL’s Women’s Bureau Director Wendy Chun-Hoon highlighted the new program during a visit to one of the department’s grant recipients, Nontraditional Employment for Women, a New York-based community organization. The visit was part of the administration’s “Investing in America” tour, which includes legislative actions aimed at creating “millions of jobs” while helping workers access the training and skills necessary to fill those positions.

Improving Job Quality for Women

According to program officials, WANTO will help address a significant underrepresentation of women in registered apprenticeship programs, including construction and manufacturing. Officials say women comprise just 14% of registered apprentices, accounting for nearly half of the U.S. labor force. Meanwhile, for those already in jobs, a benchmarking survey produced by PricewaterhouseCoopers shows that women and diverse populations are more likely than all other employees to leave within their first year of employment voluntarily. DOL aims to tackle some issues that might lead to such departures in a separate grants program by ensuring women feel safe in their job placements after training. Fostering Access, Rights and Equity grants will help survivors and women at high risk for violence and harassment in the workplace.

Administered by the department’s Women’s Bureau and the Employment and Training Administration, Fostering Access, Rights and Equity grants support efforts among non-profit organizations to address gender-based violence and harassment. Grants seek to improve job quality, partly by supporting projects that address “harmful workplace norms,” DOL officials say while bolstering strategies to prevent and reduce gender-based violence and harassment. Successful applicants must develop and distribute worker and survivor-centered materials to raise awareness, reduce workplace risks and prevent gender-based violence and harassment. Companies must also focus on connecting women to services, benefits and legal assistance while encouraging them to become focal points in their communities.

Companies Need to Reexamine Priorities

Of course, reversing the trend for low employment among women and other underrepresented groups will also require companies to examine and remove biases from their hiring and advancement practices. But not all of those biases are linked to human activities these days; some are linked to artificial intelligence (AI), DOL officials warn. As companies lean on AI to evaluate job applicants, systems must be designed with diverse users in mind to prevent discrimination, officials say.

“By collaborating with our cross-sector partners, we can harness the power of AI and create a robust risk management framework profile for automated employment decision tools,” says Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy Taryn Williams. “Our vision includes creating a profile that guides inclusive hiring for all Americans, including people with disabilities and other underserved groups.”

In October 2022, DOL’s Office of Science and Technology Policy released the blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights designed to foster more equitable and inclusive hiring of workers with disabilities and other underserved communities. Human-led activities will bring more of those groups to the workplace with or without AI.