Tierra Williams quickly discovered construction sites aren’t always welcoming places for women.
Williams joined Trade Off, a Nassau County-based construction management firm, in 2015 after a year of unemployment. But last year she became pregnant, and her request for light duty, according to Williams, was denied. Trade Off, like many other construction firms, didn’t offer paid leave for pregnant trade workers. So Williams took a break from work and returned after a month — in fear of losing her job. Her friends and boyfriend, who also worked on the construction site, helped her manage larger loads.
Two weeks after returning to work and 12 weeks into her pregnancy, Williams said, she miscarried.
While Williams has yet to take legal action against her employer over the circumstances of her miscarriage, she filed a complaint in December with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging continued sexual harassment while working at Related Companies’ 520 West 30th Street. In addition to constant lewd and inappropriate comments from her male co-workers, one of the foreman would stand outside the restroom and stare at Williams menacingly, according to the complaint, filed against Trade Off and Related. When she confronted the foreman to explain that she needed to use the bathroom often due to her recent miscarriage, he allegedly responded: “Bitch, I do what the fuck I want to do. I don’t know who you think you’re talking to.”
After speaking to a supervisor about this and other incidents, Williams said, she was fired. Representatives for Trade Off and Related declined to comment.
Like many industries, construction is struggling with allegations of discrimination and sexual harassment, which in some cases are only coming to light now, in the midst of the #MeToo movement. While women in construction face many of the same challenges that spring up in other male-dominated industries, they also grapple with several unique ones. Many associate construction with the image of tough-looking men who spend long hours doing physically draining work. For a long time, a woman on a construction site was an anomaly — and on some projects, that’s still the case. Additionally, the work itself is inflexible and requires long hours, making child care and other aspects of work-life balance particularly difficult.
“When you are on a worksite, it’s especially tough if you are a woman,” said Lou Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers Association. “I wouldn’t necessarily call construction workers the most sensitive people in the world. It’s a culture, and it takes time to change that culture.”
Though there’s been considerable progress in the industry over the past four decades, and some companies have launched ambitious initiatives to diversify their workforces, women remain underrepresented both on the corporate level — working directly for construction managers — and on job sites. Eleven of the top 12 most active general contractors and construction management firms last year — accounting for both ground-up and interior renovation work — had management teams made up of more than 50 percent men, according to an analysis by The Real Deal. One of the 11 firms had a 55/45 split, but for the most part, most management teams were more than 70 percent male. Meanwhile, one firm did not respond to TRD’s inquiries, and no details of its leadership team were publicly available.
Still, the nature of construction work isn’t what ultimately keeps women away from the industry, said Jane LaTour, a longtime labor activist and author of “Sisters in the Brotherhoods.”
“They never say that it’s the work itself that drives them out,” LaTour said. “They always say it’s the bullshit around it. It’s the harassment that makes it so hard.”
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