Trainees ©YIEDIE
©YIEDIE
Case study

Women at work: Engaging young women in construction in Ghana

Author: Ethel Seiwaa Boateng
Published by: ALIGN

YIEDIE was a five-year project to create economic opportunities in Ghana’s construction sector for economically disadvantaged youth, with a particular focus on young women, who are very under-represented in the industry.  

Women in Ghana are making strong progress in joining the country’s workforce. As in many other countries, however, they remain very under-represented in the construction sector. In Ghana, 3% of workers employed in the construction sector are women. Nevertheless, the sector is expanding, lucrative, labour-intensive and has always been an important employer. 

With more demand for construction work (and skilled construction workers), women have a growing opportunity to strive for fulfilling positions in the industry. But only if the factors that deter them from such a career can be overcome.

A trained Aluminium Fabricator operating a cut off saw ©YIEDIE

Why young women are reluctant to work in construction

The industry’s scant female workforce in Ghana is a result of stereotypes and perceptions, societal norms and the lived experience of young women, who also have concerns about health and safety and the costs of training and education. Young women are worried about the perceived and negative long-term physical health effects (especially the alleged impact on fertility) and the ‘loss’ of feminine features associated with working in the construction sector. This is a serious problem for young women who believe that losing their fertility and feminine features will make it harder for them to find suitable partners for marriage.  

The long hours on site are another issue, as women are expected to spend more time than men on childcare and at home. Marriage, as an institution, is held in high esteem in Ghana, as in other societies. That is why families are uncomfortable with females who take on jobs that are seen as ‘masculine’ and do not encourage young women to pursue careers in the construction sector.  

The masculine stereotype further deepens the belief that women are not physically strong enough to take on the jobs and risks of their male peers. While it is true that some construction activities are physically challenging, this has led to an unhelpful misrepresentation of the whole sector as masculine. 

What’s more, the low percentage of female employees in the sector makes it rare for young women to relate to a job in construction on a personal level, as they see very few role models in the sector. There are also instances where daring young women with exceptional skills are teased and mocked by their male peers for a perceived lack of competency in the field.

Women working in the sector have also reported that clients have expressed doubt and lack of trust when giving them contracts. These negative perceptions of women’s ability to work in construction have an impact on the aspirations of young women and their determination to pursue jobs, as they may feel a lack of self-confidence, a lack of self-esteem and may come to see themselves as incapable of acquiring the technical skills they need. Where females are seen on construction sites, they are likely to provide catering services to workers or carry out menial labour tasks. A youth shared how she was admonished by her family to engage in a more feminine job:

“I faced teasing from my family during my training and at some points, they would tell me to leave our home and find a more suitable job – ‘Stop this and go and occupy yourself with baking’ they told me.” 

Last, there is also the issue of sexual harassment. While there is little information on this, some women report men do or say inappropriate and harassing things towards them. Harassment also comes in the form of passing derogatory remarks or mocking women’s technical abilities in the field. The absence of or the use of shared toilet facilities on worksite or working in secluded sites is also of concern to young women. Such occurrences could predispose them to sexual harassment, hence makes jobs in the sector unattractive. 

As a result of such lived experiences, coupled with societal norms and social messages telling them construction work is more appropriate for men, few young women in Ghana aspire for careers in construction.

A trained  Electrician at work ©YIEDIE

Encouraging female participation in construction

The five-year Youth Inclusive Entrepreneurial Development initiative for Employment (YIEDIE) project in Ghana from 2015 to 2020 used a holistic approach that combines market-relevant skills training, mentorship, internships and access to financial services to help youth get into jobs in the construction sector. 

Under the project, 30% of the participants who were trained in entrepreneurial or technical skills in construction were females. The skills training included craftsmanship, painting, plumbing, metal fabrication, carpenter, aluminium fabrication, electricals, steel bending interior decoration, tiling of floors and walls.

YIEDIE worked actively to get more young women (15 to 24 years-old) trained and employed in the construction sector. By doing so, the project demonstrated the ability of women to build a successful career in the sector, creating positive role models for other girls and young women.  

Three key lessons have emerged from the YIEDIE initiative on how to encourage female participation in construction in Ghana.

  • Make participation possible. To engage young people in the construction sector, mindful mobilizations proved useful in encouraging participation. This involved engaging with the community through its leadership, families of participants, and deploying female construction workers and youth who had already trained successfully with YIEDIE youth to recruit new entrants.

    The involvement of key influential community leaders has increased support for the project, reduced attrition among participants and played a vital role in helping to change social norms and attitudes towards young women enrolled on the programme. 

    Other strategies to encourage participation included waiving enrolment and examination fees, providing financial support and making training schedules flexible enough accommodate care responsibilities and household work. 
     
  • A trained wielder joins metal at site ©YIEDIE    Create safe spaces. In order to provide a non-threatening workplace, gender training and sensitization activities were carried out with employers, employees and apprentices of companies where the young women were trained. Anti-harassment and safeguarding policies were also put in place and the participants educated about their rights and the support systems available to if there were problems. A youth recounted how she works with male counterparts:  

    “I work alongside four men and I'm the only female welder. But I get on well with them, we socialize and I have found that if I assert myself and create boundaries, men and women can work well together in this trade and learn from each other.”
     
  • Teach soft and transferable skills. Gender-specific skills, such as assertiveness and dealing with sexual harassment, are skills that come in handy on the job. Job hunting and networking skills are also useful to build a client-base and ease the transition into the industry after the training. Other transferable skills such as good communication, financial management, business and entrepreneurship, interpersonal skills are essential, particularly for women who may want to find jobs in other sectors. 

Women’s reluctance to work in the construction sector has deep roots in social norms and attitudes about types of work appropriate for men and women. However, the YIEDIE project has shown that change can happen if more women choose to work in the sector and serve as role models. This will, in turn, help to tackle gender norms, change narratives and enhance the lived experience of young women, helping to shape their future job aspirations. 

The following testimonies from the young woman trained indicates that they are changing the narrative: 

“I have been training as an electrician for 9-months and these days, my parents are more supportive. They have seen positive changes in me and noted the skills that I have acquired and my boldness and determination. They now realise that I can still work in electrics as a woman, and make money which can support the family. To have convinced them and demonstrated my determination and ability as a young woman, well I am proud. I have proved them wrong.”  

“Now, when I wear my safety clothing in public, people see me and are surprised. It’s rare to see a woman in this role, but even rarer to see one in the Aluminum Fabrication sector. Some comment on how they are impressed to see a woman working in construction. Often other women don’t believe that they could do construction work, but I say, ‘Yes you can, of course’.”

As companies focus on hiring more females in the industry, the next generation of girls may well see a significant increase in the percentage of construction workers who are women. Until then, there must be a deliberate attempt and concerted effort to encourage women to develop their talents in diverse roles and fulfilling jobs across the construction industry . 

 
 

Ethel Seiwaa BoatengAbout the author - Ethel Seiwaa Boateng

Ethel Seiwaa Boateng is a development practitioner interested in mitigating inequality and poverty and contributing to the achievement of sustainable development in individuals and the societies. 

She is experienced in youth employment and skills development, community mobilisation and stakeholder engagement, project design and implementation, monitoring and evaluation and learning and socio-economic research. She currently is the Youth Forward Learning Partnership Coordinator in Ghana at Participatory Development Associates Ltd and the Ghana Coordinator for Youth Forward Learning Partnership.