Creating a Network of Support—for Good Times and Bad
By Michelle Benyacar and Rebecca Leonardis, STO Building Group National Women in Construction Co-Chairs
Women have been working hard to break through as leaders in the world of construction—and have made great strides. While the number of women in construction has hovered between 9 and 11% over the past 20 years, by 2018, nearly one in three companies had promoted women to senior roles.
We can attribute some of this progress to the efforts of industry groups to advance careers and improve opportunities for women in networking, education, and leadership skills. In addition, females are increasingly participating in programs such as the Ace Mentorship Program in the US and Construction Youth Trust in the UK, which are designed to attract high school students into pursuing careers in the architecture, construction, and engineering industry. Events and awareness campaigns during Women in Construction Week each March have also significantly raised awareness around the contributions women are making to our field.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything, the careers of many women took a major hit. As McKinsey reported in July 2020, a “gender-regressive scenario” has emerged in which women have disproportionately left the workforce to take on the burdens of such “unpaid care” as childcare, parental care, cooking, and cleaning. The construction industry was no exception.
What this new reality brought to the forefront is the importance of fostering a diverse, equitable, and supportive culture that helps position employees from all walks of life for success. Long before the pandemic, STO Building Group had initiated a Women in Construction network to create a forum for women (and men!) in our company to find opportunities for networking, career development, and charitable service to organizations with similar objectives. As the pressures of the pandemic became increasingly clear, this Women in Construction network became an inspiring example of resilience.
Throughout the year, STOBG Women in Construction (WIC) groups helped drive the company’s efforts to give back and support communities in need. Our Boston team donated more than 300 masks and COVID care kits to a childcare center for low-income families, the Philadelphia WIC group volunteered to sort donated food at the Philabundance Hunger Relief Center, and the New York City WIC team led a holiday toy drive to bring some sense of normalcy and joy to needy children. Many of these groups have continued to attend virtual networking events, and even host their own—in Texas, for example, the WIC group spearheaded a “Women in Construction throughout the Years” panel in which a panel of executives and personnel from clients and trade contractors shared perspectives on how the presence, promotion, and roles of women have changed in the construction industry. Our National WIC group also rounded out Women’s History Month with a panel of male leaders in our company discussing the women who have inspired them and how they reciprocate—from mentoring women in our workplaces to fostering a culture in which that support is inherent.
What stands out the most, however, is the continual collaboration, enthusiasm, and encouragement of the participants in these groups, even during the most uncertain times. Many of the local WIC groups are working towards creating a safe and transparent environment where employees feel they can tackle challenges honestly and work together towards solutions. By sharing similar stories—and sometimes not-so-similar stories—members of these groups have realized that they are not alone. These discussions focus not only on work issues, but also the associated issues—the loneliness of quarantining, the stresses of parental and childcare, staying physically and mentally fit. This forum has provided an outlet throughout the organization to help employees—both men and women—understand they are not alone.
As the McKinsey report notes, “What is good for gender equality is good for the economy and society as well.” COVID-19 amplified this point and further underscores how we all—men, women, parents, employers, employees—can leverage the disparity the pandemic brought to the surface as an opportunity for change and growth.
Industry Resources for Women
Professional Women in Construction
The National Association for Women in Construction
Women Building Change
NEW (Non-Traditional Employment For Women)