For decades, women have made strides in male-dominated industries, including the construction industry, where females continue to eliminate roadblocks and embrace challenges each year.

A 2023 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) revealed that the number of women in the construction industry has hit its highest percentage rate – 10.9%, which equates to 1.2 million, compared to the nearly 10 million men.

Each year, local chapters of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) host events to celebrate Women In Construction Week during the first week of March. Events often include high school presentations and classes, job site tours, luncheons, virtual events and professional development sessions/training. This year’s theme, “Keys to the Future,” celebrates women’s strength and knowledge and their vital role in shaping the construction industry’s future.

According to Buildertrend‘s article, last updated in January 2024, women continue to change the industry and break barriers despite facing numerous challenges in gender bias and career advancement. On construction job sites in the U.S., one of every 100 employees is a woman. “These women hold titles like architects, administrators and project managers. Whether they’re donning a hard hat or keeping things organized behind the scenes, they bring value to the job site and the office. They’re breaking down gender barriers and bringing a fresh perspective to the construction industry,” according to the Buildertrend article.

A Woman’s Perspective

Rebecca Reifel discussed her career path during a S. M. Wilson SKILLED® event at Columbia Public Schools Columbia Career Advancement Center.

When Rebecca Reifel graduated from Missouri S&T with an architectural/civil engineering degree emphasizing structural design, she hoped to design buildings.

“After I did structural building design for 5 years, I decided this wasn’t the career path I wanted for the rest of my life. So I decided to switch to the construction side of things, where I would still have the opportunity to work on buildings, but now instead of designing them, I help to construct them,” said Reifel, an assistant project manager. Since coming to S. M. Wilson, she has worked on andeducation and retail projects.

Before coming to S. M. Wilson, Reifel went on a job site tour of City Foundry, an S. M. Wilson project. During the tour, she talked to a project manager about their position and what the job entails.

“The role sounded interesting. Being in a similar design field, I thought it would be an easy transition to flip to the construction side of things, also much more my speed. I liked the social and field experience I would get over the nine hours behind a desk I was doing. From that interaction at City Foundry, I eventually found my way here.”

Reifel has found that she loves her job and S. M. Wilson. “Not every job is the same or easy but the company work/life balance and the people make it worth it. The company provides that, and I’ve felt at home since day one.”

While Reifel believes women are still a minority in the field and may continue to be for some time to come, she feels there is always room for growth and development, and everything is headed toward more and more women joining the industry with time.

After interning with S. M. Wilson last summer, Moriah Ellis returned as a project engineer in February after graduation.

Seven years ago, Rebecca Cornatzer, now Interim President and Chief Human Resources Officer, came to S. M. Wilson with hopes of making change within the company.

“When I came to S. M. Wilson, about 19% of our workforce was women. Over the last 6 years we have had an average increase of 8%, and today, 28% of our workforce are women. We have had an even bigger increase in the number of women in leadership with a 20% increase in women holding leadership roles.”

Cornatzer also developed Wilson Women, which provides opportunities for networking, relationship building, learning and professional development. In addition to these opportunities, S. M. Wilson created a wellness room that can be used for lactation for new moms and quiet purposes for mental health. Women are now across every department with the largest increase in operations whereas in the past most women in the company were working in accounting, human resources and marketing.

S. M. Wilson team members walk a project jobsite.

Headed In The Right Direction

Outside of S. M. Wilson, women are given additional opportunities through support and education to build technical skills and support and network with other accomplished professional women through different organizations and programs. Programs such as Missouri Women in Trades (MOWIT), LitShop, Construction Career Development Initiative (CCDI), Building Union Diversity (BUD), and S. M. Wilson’s SKILLED® have emphasized and connected with targeted groups to encourage more female participation, said Diana Wilhold, Deputy Executive Director & Chief Operating Officer with Construction Forum.

“[The Construction Forum is] a convener, communicator, and collaborator of all the stakeholders in the construction-built environment. We do this work through collaborative partnerships and systems change efforts in addressing barriers often recognized as the reason “why” individuals have been omitted from the industry. There has been a greater intentionality in bringing awareness to females in the school community sector,” Wilhold said.

“The industry as a whole has been making strides to address the lack of women in the field. It is important to understand that when we report the increase of women in construction we recognize the growth of women’s participation from the “field-skilled trades” side to the “project engineer, manager” side of the profession. More women are going into the “operational side” of the industry. However, we are still lacking in women out in the field.  A program such as MOWIT intentionally recruits and shares with women the opportunities within the skilled trades side of the profession.”

With 19 skilled trades in this industry that can provide women with career opportunities, Wilhold suggests that having 1-1 discussions and mentoring with tradeswomen enhances the success of retention.

“Bringing the construction world to the participants that have often been omitted and offering experiential hands-on opportunities increase their knowledge and interest. People don’t know what they don’t know. If people are not aware of or can see themselves performing a role within an industry, they will never think of that position as a career,” Wilhold said.

“The SKILLED program with S. M. Wilson has been a constant force within the school community and because the outreach begins at an early age, we have a greater success in awareness as they go through the K-12 educational system.”

SKILLED has collaborated with the Construction Forum’s Yeah, I Built That initiative as well as Build My Future STL, which are additional programs focusing on younger generations to build momentum for careers in the trades industry.

Students participating in a 2023 Yeah, I Built That event.

While the numbers of women joining the trades industry slowly continues to rise, there are still a ways to go and challenges to overcome. 

“Being a woman in construction is very empowering but challenging at the same time. I’ve had two children while in the industry and while I’m grateful to have a career I am fortunate enough to support my children with, I do believe we have a long way to go,” said Kat English, a five-year laborer with S. M. Wilson, out of Laborers Local 110. 

With 15+ years in the construction industry, Project Manager Kim von der Heyde said much progress and many notable changes in the field for females have occurred including pay increases and extended opportunities, but many obstacles still remain to be navigated. 

However, currently being outnumbered 9-1 on average, even a self-assured and driven woman may feel like an outsider. Construction firms can create open and inclusive environments for women striving towards breaking long-standing stereotypes and cliches. The most significant hurdle remains the time and catch-up women must do in this industry to elevate themselves into executive positions and become decision-makers. That’s where the real change will begin for us,” said von der Heyde, who has been with S. M. Wilson for five years. 

Cornatzer agreed with both women that strides are being made to encourage more women to join the trades. Yet, she also believes there are still many hurdles when it comes to increasing the number of women in construction. 

“It is important to understand the individual needs and wishes of women in the workforce and continue to look at a company’s practices, policies and benefits to identify those things that best support them. It is also important to celebrate the professional and personal contributions and accomplishments that women have made in the company and in the industry,” Cornatzer said. 

“We must be purposeful in having our women represented in our candidate interviews to share their experiences and provide input on the candidates. Through shared experiences with one another, it shows other women that a career in construction is very possible.” 

To learn more about construction careers, visit the Women’s Construction Career Expo on Wednesday, March 20th, from 1 – 3:30 p.m. at the Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 562 Training Center, 3755 Corporate Trail Drive, Earth City, MO 63045. RSVP Here.

For the last three years, S. M. Wilson & Co. has been recognized as an honoree for its strong commitment to advancing women in the workplace through the Women in the Workplace Employment Scorecard by the Women’s Foundation of Greater St. Louis.

As a trusted partner, the company has built its reputation for over 100+ years as a design/build, construction management and general contracting firm. Always putting people first, our company is committed to adding significant value and building client partnerships. S. M. Wilson enriches lives by building spaces to live, work, heal, learn and play. Our expertise is in many specialty markets, primarily education, commercial, municipal, healthcare, industrial and retail. S. M. Wilson continues transforming landscapes and communities throughout the country, especially in the Midwest.

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