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Women in Construction Week honors contributions to industry

J.H. Findorff & Son project engineer Hannah Winch is an example of a woman excelling in the male-dominated construction field. Women in Construction Week wraps up on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Hannah Winch)

J.H. Findorff & Son project engineer Hannah Winch is an example of a woman excelling in the male-dominated construction field. Women in Construction Week wraps up on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Hannah Winch)

Hannah Winch recalls nights when her father, a master electrician, would show her what his work was all about.

“Growing up, he would always have his blueprints out on the table every night preparing for his next day of work,” she said.

Looking over the plans, he would explain to her what projects he was working on. It was those evening sessions that provided her first glimpse into the construction industry.

Her interest was further kindled by subsequent experiences, ranging from discussions with her high school calculus teacher about the advantages of becoming an engineer to the enthusiasm she felt when looking over the civil engineering course curriculum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the end, her choice of a career in engineering was something that required little thought.

Winch, a project engineer at Madison-based J.H. Findorff & Son, said she wishes more young people, especially women, would receive similar exposure to the construction industry’s advantages.

Stories like hers are just one of the many reasons that industry workers were taking time out this week to mark Women in Construction Week. Running through Saturday, the celebration has seen social-media accounts filled with personal success stories in the industry and pitches meant to encourage more women to view construction as a career opportunity.

Despite such efforts, though, construction largely remains a boys’ club. Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that, over the past decade, women have made up less than 10 percent of the industry’s workforce.

But Catherine Schoenenberger, president-elect of the National Association of Women in Construction, or NAWIC, and owner of Stay Safe Traffic Products in Westford, Mass., said that what is true for the industry as a whole is not necessarily so for individual occupations. Some, such as architecture, have made great strides in recent years.

Many occupations, though, have seen little to no change for decades. In engineering, for instance, women have made up only about 7 percent of the workforce since the 1970s.

One of the goals of NAWIC is to show women that they can succeed in construction careers. To that end, Schoenenberger recently attended a symposium earlier this week to take part in a panel discussion held in front of hundreds of high school girls.

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“The awareness factor alone, to keep screaming it out there, is essential,” she said.

One point Schoenberger likes to make is that even though women in construction still make less on average than men, the differences are less than in other industries. She said that, whereas women in general industry make only about 80 cents for every dollar made by men, women in construction make about 93 cents.

It might not be perfect, she acknowledged, but it still shows that the industry offers opportunities not necessarily found elsewhere.

Sara Gorenchan, a claims manager at Neenah-based Miron Construction, agreed that more women might consider a career in construction if they were aware of the industry’s advantages. She said parents and relatives are often the ones best suited to provide the needed exposure.

“The women we have in the trades come from families in construction,” she said.

Like Winch, Gorenchan is lucky to have a father who worked in the industry. Gorenchan said that even though she wasn’t necessarily committed to construction when she was choosing a career, she jumped at her opportunity to work at Miron.

Gorenchan said contractors and affiliated groups won’t be able to attract more girls and young women to construction careers without reaching out and promoting the industry more. Miron, she noted, held a “Build Like a Girl” event last summer inviting middle- and high-school-aged girls to learn more about the industry. Among other things, the event gave participants an opportunity to visit a job site and get hands-on experience.

One benefit of having women on a job site, said Carolyn Reno, a project manager at Findorff, is that they bring a different perspective to the work.

She said that, although the industry is making attempts to recruit more women, she still sometimes finds herself seated at conference tables with 30 or more men and no other women.

Reno, who helps design building interiors for clients, stressed that the industry isn’t always about working in a hardhat and tool belt.

“It (construction) has been an old boys’ club for a long time,” Reno said. “I think everyone would benefit from having more ideas in the room.”

About Alex Zank, alex.zank@dailyreporter.com

Alex Zank is a construction reporter for The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 414-225-1820.

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