Construction Zone: Women At Work

Photography by Libby Williams

By Helen Mitternight

Every industry has its uniform, from scrubs for health care workers to power suits for executives. When the women in construction gear up, it can include a hard hat, gloves, safety goggles, a vest, a harness and a sturdy pair of boots. And sometimes, it has to include thick skin.

Nationally, women make up just under 10 percent of the construction industry, and their small numbers make them tend to stick together.

In Charleston, the newly formed Palmetto Chapter of National Women in Construction (NAWIC) jumped in just a few months to 69 members, making it the largest chapter in the South Atlantic region.

“That speaks to the fact that Charleston is booming and that women are actively looking for a place where our voices are heard and amplified and where we can find professional development,” says Janet Bates, president of the Charleston chapter.

It also gives local construction women their own tribe in a field that can sometimes be a little testosterone-heavy. The stereotype of the leering construction worker on the corner is becoming an artifact, but it still happens.

“I’m not going to lie and say it never happens, but I’ve been very fortunate to work for a  company with incredibly high ethical standards,” Janet says. “I can’t speak for other construction companies. I’m sure it does happen. Our responsibility is to get more women involved so it becomes more awkward for men to do that, and (to) tell companies (their) ethical standards have to be higher to get more people to work for (them).”

The good news is that, unlike women in the general workforce who make only 81.1 percent of their male counterparts, construction women earn 95.7 percent, a much smaller pay gap.

Pay is just one reason for women to go into construction, Janet says.

“This industry is growing. It’s exciting and there’s a lot of opportunity for women,” she says. “People may think they want to go into accounting. Well, they need accountants in construction. Or you can be in the trade, out on a job site, building the communities in which we live.”

Janet, who is director of business development and marketing for CF Evans Construction, headquartered in Orangeburg, said she’d never thought about construction. She had an MBA in general management and sustainable enterprise and had experience in marketing. The construction company was looking for an intern to help refine its brand. She stayed to become an employee, “and I’m so grateful they asked me to stay,” she says.

Chandra Jones, a field engineer with Robins & Morton, “accidentally” fell into construction when she took a temporary position as a job site secretary to fill a gap in unemployment until she could find something in her field, which was accounting and human resources.

“I fell in love with what I do and I won’t stop doing it,” she says. “Because we primarily build hospitals, I personally take an immense amount of pride and joy in knowing that we leave a quality product that will benefit many in that particular community for years to come.”

Chandra, who is co-chair of the membership team for the chapter, also says there’s a lot of room for growth for women in the field.

As we share more on how STEM careers can be used in most any field including ours,” she says, “I think construction will continue to see a steady increase in the female portion of the workforce.”

The week of March 3 was declared National Women in Construction Week by Charleston, Goose Creek, Moncks Corner, James Island, North Charleston and Summerville as well as South Carolina’s governor. Janet says the chapter did an event a day, including building for Habitat for Humanity, also organizing hard-hat tours, educational events and a panel on how to deal with harassment. There also was a relay to see who could gear up most quickly in that hard hat/vest/ etc. combo.

Janet says her young daughter wants a hard hat of her own and dismisses the toy plastic ones since those can’t be worn on a real job site.

“The chapter and I both strongly believe that, unless little girls can see themselves in an industry, there’s no reason they would ever go into it,” Janet says. “I have 69 strong, passionate women who are great models for this. My 4-year-old daughter thinks I build castles for a living. I’m OK with that.”