Poking the Bear

Championing diversity, equity, and inclusion in construction

August 31, 2021 Photo

Social media has changed the way people talk to each other. Important conversations are now had through shared stories loaded with hashtags. Many trending hashtags have brought meaningful awareness to issues that were too often ignored or silenced. Consider how #blacklivesmatter and #metoo moved the dial in terms of visibility, awareness, and rectification to our friends, peers, and colleagues that had experienced discrimination and harassment.

Hashtag culture has taken off because it is trendy and easy to show support. But, if not backed up with action, hashtags can be hollow. We all know that talk is cheap. By simply slapping a hashtag in front of a compelling word, phrase, or trending topic, some feel they are bringing awareness to those scrolling through social media. And we are, but is it enough?

Enacting change is difficult because change can be uncomfortable. And important changes take time and effort. Take a topic like diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This is a subject that needs a deep-dive discussion, and more than simple hashtags, to push for lasting change.

To achieve meaningful change, especially as it relates to DEI, thought leaders must champion for change and continue to engage in difficult discussions. In other words, leaders must be willing to poke the bear. These discussions are necessary across all facets of life and work, and they are interlaced with our own individual principles. Such principles are born from our own personal ethics, and, in turn, our ethical decision-making.

Some might question whether ethics is an appropriate starting point for this discussion, but ethics is the best place to start as it allows individuals to consider the impact of their choices and/or decisions. Remember, ethics is simply determining right from wrong, or what is good or bad. Inherently, the social, legal, and emerging issues concerning DEI fall within the 12 fundamental ethical principles outlined by the Josephson Institute: honesty, integrity, promise-keeping, loyalty, fairness, caring, respect for others, law-abiding, commitment to excellence, leadership, reputation and morale, and accountability.

Diving into any of these 12 ethical principles reveals how championing for change is our ethical responsibility, but, as an example, let’s consider caring, or empathy: Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, even if we are not physically able to experience such feelings. This should be at the heart of a DEI discussion, especially for those people in the construction industry who are deemed in the “majority.” We hear stories of discrimination happening in our industry, and we should be ashamed that we still live in a world where this occurs. Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes helps with your own understanding and comprehension; and, if well-developed, can help anticipate their response. 

Challenging your own thoughts, ethics, and morals is at the heart of our discussion in this article. Rather than waiting for the next trending hashtag, we should be proactive instead of reactive, and we all care too much about the construction industry, where we live and breathe, to do nothing. Construction is, too often, stereotyped for lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion and needs our help. Poking the bear is long overdue. 

Understanding Diversity, 
Equity & Inclusion

With DEI initiatives at the forefront of many digital—and physical—conversations, simply saying words like “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” have, sadly, become more buzzwords than expressing the importance of what those words mean. Additionally, some merely use these hashtags to get more views, clicks, and likes. Businesses, industries, and individuals alike are dropping DEI words and catchphrases left and right without truly understanding what they are pushing out. 

Moreover, in the age of social media, hashtags are designed to be a short phrase that references a greater meaning, and therefore it can be difficult to interpret the meaning correctly without the history and context. Thus, defining diversity, equity, and inclusion is a must:

  • Diversity is the presence of differences that may include race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, language, (dis)ability, age, religious commitment, or political perspective. In includes populations that have been, and remain, underrepresented among practitioners in the field and marginalized in broader society.
  • Equity is promoting justice, impartiality, and fairness within the procedures, processes, and distribution of resources by institutions or systems. Tackling equity issues requires an understanding of the root causes of outcome disparities within our society.
  • Inclusion is an outcome to ensure that those who are diverse actually feel, and are, welcomed. Inclusion outcomes are met when you, your institution, and your program are truly inviting to all. Inclusion can be measured by the degree to which diverse individuals are able to participate fully in the decision-making processes and development opportunities within an organization or group.

Diversity in Construction

The construction industry is stereotyped as being male dominated and heavily white. The first stereotype rings true—with nearly 11 million people working within the construction industry, it remains a “boys club.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), only 10.9%, or approximately 1.2 million, of those individuals are women.

When the ratio of men to women is roughly nine-to-one, gender diversity is clearly missing. What is even more startling is that, according to a survey by Construction News, approximately 50% of construction companies stated they have never had a woman manager.

Beyond gender, the breakdown of race raises more concerns: According to BLS, approximately 88.6% of individuals identified their race to be “White” from race groups including White, Black or African American, and Asian. Moreover, according to BLS, 30% of the construction workforce identified as Hispanic or Latino—BLS notes these individuals may be of any race.

Although the racial divide is not as wide as the gender gap, the construction industry clearly is trailing in both the gender gap and racial diversity. In terms of fact or fiction, the top two stereotypes are more fact than fiction within construction.

Equity and Inclusion in 

Beyond measurable statistics, one stereotype within the construction industry is the treatment of those who are different. The story has been told and retold, it’s been animated into cartoons, and joked about on sitcom television: the idea of males working on a construction site hooting, hollering, and whistling at a female passerby. As you read this article, ask yourself, “Have I witnessed this happening?” Many of us have, which is why this stereotype rings true. However, where does the idiom, “one bad apple,” begin and end? 

When we consider 48% of women who work in construction have experienced gender discrimination, including inappropriate comments or behavior, then our system of workplace equality is amiss. If we ever hear someone make the argument that “men will be men,” we should stop everything and correct this mentality. No longer should any colleague of ours in construction be subjected to discrimination, nor should it be allowed to continue. We have all worked with female peers who have dealt with this throughout their career. As an industry, we need to help catapult this change to bring that to an end. 

Efforts to Enact Change

In 2020, major players in the construction industry recognized the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) launched “Culture of CARE,” a program intended to enhance industry diversity and inclusiveness. The AGC indicated that companies that sign the pledge have promised to “commit, attract, retain, and empower” their employees.

Additionally, Brynn Huneke, AGC director of diversity and inclusion and member engagement, stated, “We’re asking companies to commit to hire based on skill and experience, regardless of ethnicity, gender, race, nationality, religion or sexual orientation. The aim is to attract prospective employees by creating workplaces and cultures that are free from harassment, hazing, and bullying; to retain high-performing employees by identifying and removing barriers to advancement; and then empower every employee to promote a culture of diversity and inclusion—or a culture of care—within their companies.” 

As part of the program, companies commit to C-A-R-E. 

  • Commit to hire and pay based on skill and experience regardless of ability, age, ethnicity, gender identity, nationality, race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation.
  • Attract prospective employees by creating inclusive workplaces that are free from harassment, hazing, and bullying.
  • Retain high-performing employees by identifying and removing barriers to advancement.
  • Empower every employee to promote a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Individuals can also take the pledge, which states, “I believe that every individual has the right to work in an environment that is free from harassment, hazing, and bullying. I will do my part to build a culture that is diverse, safe, welcoming and inclusive by taking action to ensure that unwelcome, offensive, discriminatory, or harassing language and/or behavior is not tolerated in my workplace.” 

Pledging is easy. You simply check the box, enter your information, and you are committed. Immediately after making the commitment you are asked to highlight the underlying theme—“communicate your commitment”—with easy ways to share your commitment on social media: “Let current and prospective clients, partners, and employees know you’ve committed to a Culture of CARE.” Next, it offers ways you can “show” your commit-ment through stickers for your hardhat or posters to hang on the site.

If you simply stopped there, you’d never find “Culture of CARE’s Guide for Making Better Decisions,” the model “HR Policy,” or “20 HR Best Practices for Diversity in Construction.” This is where the meat and potatoes of the discussion truly is.

AGC’s initiative should be applauded. Their initiative, though, does highlight the subtext of this ethics discussion: Pledging is easy, sharing the pledge is easy; showing your pledge is easy. But enacting change is anything but easy. It requires time, work, and commitment. 

What We Can Do

In order to evoke meaningful change, we must first move beyond hashtag culture and what is easy and start championing issues that truly matter. Consider what we see champions doing for their protégés as an analogy:

  • Champions invest their time and effort in their protégés.
  • Champions publicly advocate for their protégés and work to make change.
  • Champions challenge their protégés, expose their blind spots, and provide constructive criticism.
  • Champions are backbones and provide the support needed for success.
  • Champions open the door for opportunity and success.

We can succeed not with hollow initiatives, but rather when we champion change. In considering what champions offer their protégés, lets replace protégé with DEI initiatives:  

  • Champions invest their time and effort in their DEI initiatives.
  • Champions publicly advocate for their DE&I initiatives and work to make change.
  • Champions challenge their DEI initiatives, expose their blind spots, and provide constructive criticism.
  • Champions are backbones and provide the support needed for success.
  • Champions open the door for opportunity and success.

We must get uncomfortable with stepping up and poking the bear. Are some going to get angry? Maybe. But we must be accountable. And together, and only together, the construction industry can rise as leaders.

About The Authors
Multiple Contributors
Jason Klein

Jason Klein is the managing partner of Wood Smith Henning and Berman’s Denver office and a partner in the firm’s Florida offices. jklein@wshblaw.com

Rose Hall

Rose Hall is strategic operations manager for risk engineering at AXA XL. 

Terence Kadlec

Terence Kadlec, P.E., is vice president, engineering & specialty services, at MC Consultants. terence.kadlec@mcconsultants.com

Tanya Kalby

Tanya Kalby is an executive general adjuster at Engle Martin & Associates.  tkalby@englemartin.com

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