ABA Forum on Construction Law’s Fall Meeting Explores Inclusion, Diversity, and Professionalism in the Construction and Legal Industries

I was fortunate to attend the ABA Forum on Construction Law’s fall meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from October 23 – 25, 2019.   The program titled Building a Better Construction Industry through Inclusion, Diversity, and Professionalism was a first for both the Forum on Construction Law and the ABA.  Never before had any ABA group dedicated an entire meeting to the topics of inclusion, diversity, and professionalism.  The following ABA diversity commissions and coalitions co-sponsored the event: the Commission on Women in the Profession, the Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice, the Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities, the Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, the Commission on Disability Rights, and the Council for Diversity in the Educational Pipeline.

The speakers in the nine plenary sessions provided a wealth of information, insight, and practical tips to both lawyers and construction professionals alike.  Here are some of the highlights:

Diversity and Inclusion Problems Can Be Conquered, If You Are Willing to Commit to the Work

Unconscious bias is present not just in the construction industry and legal industry but in all industries.  No one likes to be told they are biased, but everyone has their own biases and proclivities. This is natural and even understandable as Plenary #1 Speaker, Kathleen Nalty explained.  The most typical type of unconscious bias is affinity bias – or the bias for a particular group or for individuals who share similar backgrounds or commonalities.  Nalty further explained that affinity bias often results in the exclusion of women and diverse individuals from valuable networking opportunities, mentors and sponsors, meaningful work assignments, training and development, and client contact, among other things.  The impacts of affinity bias can steer diverse talent right out the door as can be seen in the engineering and legal industries which face high attrition rates of women and diverse individuals. 

According to the data pulled and gathered by the Plenary #2 speakers, William J. Bates, Linda Bauer Darr, Brynn Huneke, and Linda Klein, the construction industry is 90.1% male and 88.4% white.  With numerous studies and reports finding that diverse teams both out-perform and are more profitable than their non-diverse counterparts, it is no wonder that so many companies are hiring ‘Diversity and Inclusion Officers’.  But recognizing there is a diversity problem in your company or organization isn’t enough.  Tackling diversity and inclusion issues takes a dedicated and concerted effort — an effort that must begin on the individual level.

Conference attendees who participated in the round-table lunches began the important work of identifying and tackling their own biases.  During the lunch session, we engaged in two exercises: the first was a discussion of what we each had found most interesting of the morning’s plenary sessions, and the second was an exercise in self-reflection.  Despite the uncomfortable nature of the topic and the fact that some of us were sitting with complete strangers, we all shared how inclusive we thought we had been at the conference and what we thought we could do to improve inclusivity both at the conference and beyond.  The exercise forced us to openly confront our unconscious biases and develop concrete actions we could take to make the conference and our organizations more inclusive.  Whether we all took those next steps to increase inclusivity at the conference or not, we all walked away with the knowledge and understanding that diversity and inclusivity improvements in our organizations and communities begins with us.

As Nalty confessed, even she, an implicit and unconscious bias expert and consultant, continues to work on identifying her unconscious biases and correct their impacts.  Improvements in diversity and inclusivity are possible if we all work hard and work together.

The Labor Shortage Presents a Diversity and Inclusion Opportunity

The construction industry is facing record work shortages as noted here and here.  According to the AGC, 80% of construction firms are reporting workforce shortages.  With the current state of immigration initiatives in the country, immigration may not be the solution to the labor shortage.  

While the labor shortage presents immediate problems like delayed projects, it also provides a great opportunity for the industry to improve diversity and inclusion.  Women could stand to gain in diversity pushes in the construction industry.  Unlike other industries which have a wide pay gap between women and men, the pay gap in the construction industry is much narrower.  Anne Bibeau’s, Michael J. Frantz, Jr.’s, and Kristin Protas’s paper, Pay Equity in the Construction Industry presented during the conference, noted that according to a 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, “the median wages of full-time wage and salary workers of women in construction was 93.4 percent of that of their male counterparts.”  Pay equity may be one of the factors which will lead to an uptick in women joining the construction industry.  In some places across the country, an increase in women in the construction industry may already be happening.  See here and here.  Some companies are getting creative about the labor shortage and creating internship programs for high schoolers (see here) and creating training and early recruitment programs for young adults (see here).  Exposing students to the construction industry could yield improvements to diversity in the future.

As the construction industry strives to increase its diversity and seeks to tap the interest of a new generation, it will need to acknowledge generational differences and increase cultural competency to truly reap the rewards.  Author of You Raised Us, Now Work with Us: Millenials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams, Lauren Stiller Riken, spoke to conference attendees about generational differences in the workplace and how best to foster respect and achieve success.  Speakers Adrian L. Bastianelli, III, and Wayne DeFlaminis addressed cultural competency and the impacts on mediations and negotiations in the construction industry.  Both are crucial topics in the diversity and inclusion discussion.

Working Together

Overall, I was impressed by the ABA Forum on Construction Law’s initiative in addressing and tackling such an important topic.  I know the conference attendees departed with increased awareness and a desire to bring further change to both the legal and construction industries.  I’m excited for the future as we all embark on this project to build a better construction industry.

Additional reading:

ABA’s Resources for Identifying and Confronting Implicit Bias

ABA’s Diversity Action Plan

AGC’s Business Case for Diversity and Inclusion in the Construction Industry

AIA’s Guidelines for Equitable Architectural Practice