Jan/Feb
2017

Against the Grain: Women Working in Architecture, Carpentry and Civil Engineering

Written by Sarah Oslund
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It’s no secret that the construction industry primarily consists of men. In fact, only 3 percent of construction workers today are women. But even with prominent workplace barriers like wage disparities, real and perceived bias and a general lack of respect for their abilities, women are becoming an increasingly recognized force in the construction industry—and they are encouraging young women to consider following in their steps.

ENGINEERING AND THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT

According to the National Science Foundation, women make up half of the college-educated workforce in the United States but represent a mere 29 percent of science and engineering jobs. Although the number of women in science and engineering jobs has risen significantly in the past two decades, the gap between genders has narrowed only modestly.

Vanessa Hines works as a civil engineer for Widseth Smith Nolting and is hoping to see the gender gap continue to close. She has worked in the construction industry for about six years. “When I first started, I would walk into a meeting and scan the room,” Vanessa recalls. “I was typically the youngest and the only woman.” While it made her self-conscious at the time, Vanessa’s gotten over it. “I try to keep in mind that I am able and capable,” she explains, “and that is why I have the job I do.” 

As a civil engineer, Vanessa works with commercial and municipal clients to design the “built environment,” which includes all of the physical elements of where we live and work, from homes and buildings to streets and infrastructure. As part of her job, Vanessa collaborates with many other members of the building team to ensure the best outcome on a project. 

“Oftentimes I work closely with an architect on aspects of a project that reside beyond the bounds of a building,” she says. Vanessa also coordinates with regulatory agencies like the city, the Department of Transportation and other design disciplines. “We work together to bring a project to reality,” she says.

BUILDING THE FUTURE

German architect Walter Gropius once said, "Architecture begins where engineering ends." He suggests that engineering ensures that a building will have structural integrity but that an architect makes that structure visually appealing. 

Teresa McCormack is an architect and owner of The Urban Studio, a Rochester-based company that offers planning and design services throughout southeastern Minnesota. Teresa’s team takes over once Vanessa’s work is done, designing commercial and residential properties. The Urban Studio also works with clients to navigate the planning and zoning approval process, acquire building safety permits and develop relationships with contractors. 

“Architecture is not as much about producing a blueprint as it is providing consultation,” Teresa explains. “Our professional role is to take the client’s need for a place and develop the documents to frame the construction activity.”

Teresa’s high school guidance counselor was the first to suggest she consider a career in architecture based on her love of drawing and building. “I also have a ‘nerd-love’ of physics and geometry,” she jokes. 

But love for subjects like science, math, building and construction are not the norm for most girls. Women are traditionally underrepresented when it comes to pursuing STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math—education and careers. So much so that President Obama has taken action to expand STEM education and employment opportunities for women and underrepresented populations.

ROCKING AND ROLLING: THE FINISHING TRADES

At 21 years old, Kaylyn Nygaard is a graduate of the carpentry program at Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC) and is currently enrolled in the Finishing Trades Apprenticeship Program. She works as a taper and mudder for Mulcahy Nickolaus Commercial Interiors and Exteriors, based in Oakdale, Minnesota. 

Growing up, Kaylyn found herself with two very different types of role models that led her to pursue a career in the construction industry. The first was her grandfather, who ran an excavating company. The second was far less personal but equally impactful for Kaylyn. “I grew up watching ‘Extreme Home Makeover’ on TV,” she says. “I cried at the end of every show when they presented the families in need with their new homes.” 

Kaylyn loves that the work she does contributes to the joy that people experience in their homes and businesses—and even in local hospitals. “When I do this job, I feel great,” she says. “I do it because it’s more than just making a living for me and for my family; it’s literally helping to build the community around me.” 

KEEPING IT LOCAL: MINNESOTA WOMEN IN CONSTRUCTION

The responsibility for increasing engagement of women in non-traditional careers does not rest solely at the national level. The onus is also on local communities. 

Here in Rochester, Michelle Pyfferoen is the dean of career and technical education and business partnerships at RCTC and part of a regional workgroup that is developing a strategy to increase the number of women in the trades. 

“The Women in Non-Traditional Employment taskforce is a subgroup of the SE Minnesota Workforce Development Board,” Michelle explains. Taskforce members represent local employers, public and private agencies and higher education. The group’s focus is to increase awareness and access to non-traditional careers, promote economic prosperity and combat societal perceptions of a “woman’s role” in the workforce. 

The taskforce has a goal of identifying key steps in bridging the employment gap. Operating from the position that “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” the group is focusing on educational curriculum to bring career awareness as early as elementary school. Community involvement is greatly desired, and anyone interested in learning more can contact the Rochester WorkForce Center.

And for those considering a career in construction and design, Vanessa has some advice for you: “Don’t be intimidated by a male-dominated industry,” she says. “You are the only one holding you back.”

Sarah Oslund is a freelance writer and owner of Inspire Marketing & Consulting, visit inspiremn.net.