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Article March 8, 2024

Construction is a Co-Ed Sport by Julia Salgueiro

Construction is a team sport. I do not think I am going out on a limb by making that statement, and I bet 100% of managers would agree with me. Where we may begin to diverge is how we define who is on that team and how to go about building the team for long-term success.

As an athlete, I have participated in team sports for 34 years and on all-girls teams for many of those years. After college, I found recreational sports through the local parks and rec department(s) and have since experienced playing on women’s teams, co-ed teams, and men’s teams. After years of playing in all three leagues and with a competitive co-ed team for a time, I have developed a theory about how a construction company might consider building its team for long-term success: construction is a co-ed sport.

For many reading this article, the statistics about our industry’s dwindling workforce are not new. I don’t think I’ve attended a seminar that doesn’t remind us that women make up 58.5% of the US labor force but only 10.9% of the construction workforce. They always close with a statement about how “we need to do something about getting more women into the industry.” For the 17 years I have been in construction, I have heard the same statistics and messages several times, yet nothing has been actionable to move the needle.

Some of us have taken action into our own hands, and I feel we are making an impact on the retention of women. The extracurricular dedication of women in the industry and the support of crucial male allies have built up support around the women already in the industry. We are on our way, and my hope in sharing my theory is that we can expand mindsets to everyone on the team. Not just how do we get more women, but how do we build a team that includes both men and women? This is where my co-ed team theory stems from.

When you sign up for a recreational team sport (let’s say slow pitch softball) at your local parks and rec department, you typically have three choices: men’s, women’s, or co-ed (I assume it depends on the demand, but even in my smallish town we have all three).

I want to start by discussing the men’s and women’s only leagues; each positively impacts those who play in them. Not a man myself, I am going to make the assumption based on my experience that the men’s teams serve men in similar but different ways to how women find value in women’s teams. I believe the draw to same-gender teams is simple: a level of security and comfort comes from being around people of the same gender when playing on a team.

The gender-specific experiences in our lives can only be understood by those who lived that same experience. In life, there is great value in maintaining a means for men to support men and women to support women. Being around someone who can understand you uniquely as a man or woman is a level of recognition that a person of the opposite gender cannot provide. Some men prefer men’s teams because they do not have to worry about adjusting their level of play or behavior as they would when around women. Similarly, some women prefer to only play on women’s teams because they do not care for the level of play and bravado that men bring when they play. Perfect, each group has what they need. But what about when they are on the same team?

Let’s now talk about co-ed teams. I appreciate being on co-ed teams; reflecting on it, I realize it is the diversity I enjoy. More personalities, different life experiences, and various upbringings add to the melting pot in the dugout. The bottom line is we are all a team. How do we seem to make that work?

To overcome the physical advantages and disadvantages of men and women, the governing bodies have rules meant to create gender equity to avoid hindering gameplay. For example, women get to hit a smaller ball, as we are naturally not as strong as men; this is not offensive, just a reality. Sidenote: some women can hit the you-know-what out of the ball, so a smaller ball poses a significant advantage to some teams with those talented ladies. Depending on the league’s rules, some leagues require a certain number of women and men to be on the field or in the lineup, or if a man is pitching, a woman is a catcher and vice versa.

Do rules set in the name of equity change the game? No. Do the rules make playing more challenging? No. Are we having less fun? No.

The game does not change just because we have leveled the playing field physically. Softball is a physical sport, and being fast and strong goes a long way, but as with most sports, there is also the mental aspect (90% mental, as I’ve been told). On a team, everyone needs to know the play, plan ahead for their next move, and anticipate the moves/needs from their teammate and the opposing team. Some women have played more ball than the men on their team and know the game better, or vice versa. We take advantage of the collective knowledge of the game to teach each other, raise each other up, and challenge each other. Regardless of gender or physical ability, the mental game of adjusting to your teammate’s needs never changes:

On the softball field, it doesn’t matter if the shortstop makes a diving stop for a grounder up the middle if he blows up the first basement with a bad throw at her feet. With a slower runner on first, the faster runner up to bat needs to adjust to avoid running off the player ahead of him; both runs are important to the team. And if I see one more player not tag on a fly ball…

Before women, construction was an all men’s league. Consider the male-to-male comradery in men’s softball now suddenly forced into the co-ed league; anyone would acknowledge the experience to be disruptive. If we say construction is a co-ed sport today, what will we change to adapt for our team? We need to look at what women need to be successful.

What are some of their challenges? Can we accommodate flexible work schedules to support the reality that women [traditionally] are the source of care for the children or aging parents? Are women being overlooked for certain positions due to unconscious bias? Do women face outright threats from men in the office? The answer is yes to all.

If you take another look, though, unlike co-ed softball, a company that implements changes to address the needs of women will also improve the work-life balance for men. The more we adjust, the more appealing construction will become for a broader and more diverse labor force. As construction companies will benefit from a higher functioning team, we will reap the rewards for making the accommodation so that each person on the team can play at peak performance.

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