Your work force is becoming more diverse, and perhaps you’re a little confused about how to recruit and retain these new workers, especially the women. So what do you do?

First, leave your paranoia behind. Most women in the workplace don’t plan to sue the company. Vigilance, solid antiharassment and antidiscrimination policies, and a consistently applied grievance system should protect you against all but the most egregious acts. A culture of respect can prevent most claims.

Second, realize that women are in the workplace for the same reasons men are. We want fair compensation, respect and recognition for our accomplishments, and clearly defined expectations. We’re also more likely to stay in a job we don’t particularly like. One survey found that only 4 percent of women in the construction industry were actively seeking to leave. Either we’re more stubborn and determined to make things work, or believe we can change our workplace.

Third, make gender differences an advantage instead of complaining about them. Thirty years ago, baby-boomer career women were taught to be “little men.” Today, smart companies tap the innate brain and social differences of women to maximize their talent.

Women are traditionally society’s mediators, relationship builders, and nurturers. Any electrical contractor negotiating more contracts, building loyal customer relationships, and dealing with more woman as owners will find it advantageous to have women on the team.

Now, let’s talk about image. The “big dog” contractors and construction users will never succeed in changing the image of construction. The change must come from the small companies, the women, the new generations—in other words, the grass-roots majority, and the new players. Image isn’t about the impressive foyer lighting of a new corporate building, or the fancy computer network you’ve installed, and it’s not just about what your customers think.

Image is about what kind of language your employees use when they’re at lunch or at the bar after work. Potential customers see your employees with your logo shirts and hard hats. They see them in your company vehicles. And it’s about what the public thinks, because they are all construction users. Women develop language skills earlier in life than men, and women can change the tawdry behavior that customers will no longer tolerate on their job sites.

The stereotypical grim-faced, crusading feminist has been replaced by the confident, capable professional woman. If you don’t know any clean jokes, and your vocabulary needs work, then you’ve got bigger problems than women taking the fun out of your day. Women are great communicators, and both genders are slowly adapting to a more neutral, overlapping language in the workplace. Read John Gray’s “Mars and Venus in the Workplace” or Deborah Tannen’s “Talking From 9 to 5” to improve communication in your company.

Let’s assume that you really want to recruit and retain women. You know that women have had to be more efficient, talented and tenacious to make their way in the industry, and you think this will raise your performance standards. What are the pitfalls, and what do “we” want, anyway?

The good news for you is that most women undervalue themselves. What we want is a good living for our families and respect for our accomplishments. Kim Cameron, a director with the National Association of Women in Construction, recognizes that “women are held to a higher standard,” and that men are allowed uninterrupted time away from work, but women are “on call” constantly. She advises companies that recruit management and executive positions to remember women “want to be treated equitably and are concerned about quality of life.”

Women don’t necessarily follow the traditional career path. We do want to be listened to, have our contributions valued, and not be referred to as the “girl in the office” or the “chick in the hard hat.” But you knew that already, and no smart company would do those things. What you haven’t fully recognized is the business value of sending women to association meetings, conventions, seminars and golf outings, where our networking skills can be applied. Pay the dues and reap the profits.

Business etiquette makes it unnecessary for you to open doors, carry our burdens, or otherwise do anything you wouldn’t do for a male colleague. Relating to women as colleagues means that you respect us as fellow workers—even friends—but not sexual targets. Corporate decency means you provide private, clean sanitation facilities, and don’t try to kill us with some silly hazing ritual or macho challenge.

Despite good intentions, progress is slow. According to several surveys, 80 percent of women in construction have experienced a form of harassment, either blatant or subtle. One-third of tradeswomen have been threatened, challenged or deliberately injured on job sites. Tradeswomen make up a mere 2 to 4 percent of tradespeople, and many leave because they are isolated, unwilling to risk their personal safety and can’t find a clean bathroom.

Often, women who leave your company are becoming your competitors. According to Women Construction Owners & Executives (WCOE), more than 7 percent of construction revenues went to women-owned companies in 1997, and the number continues to grow. Nearly 10 percent of construction employees work for women-owned businesses. As business owners, women are less likely to fail in the first five years, more likely to make higher profits, and establish better relationships with customers and employees than men do.

WCOE President Marjorie Herter asserts that “women-owned construction businesses will tend to adapt at a quicker pace to the evolving performance-based contracting... the difference is that women seek effectiveness and men take the traditional approach of winning.”

Will smart electrical contractors become more “women friendly?” Will you be willing to make changes in your corporate culture to maximize the value and talents of the women you recruit? Even management guru Tom Peters acknowledges that “gone are the days of women succeeding by learning to play men’s games. Instead the time has come for men on the move to learn to play women’s games.” Whose game will you be playing? EC

NORBERG is a contributing editor to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR magazine and a motivational speaker and management trainer. She is a past national president of the American Subcontractors Association and the National Association of Women in Construction. She can be e-mailed at nawicexpres@aol.com.