More women are being represented in the construction industry than in years past, but it still is a heavily male-dominated field. Women make up about 9% of the construction industry’s workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A similar story among women professionals in the construction world is being the only female voice at the discussion table. Monica Steimle-App, executive vice president of real estate development for Rockford Construction, said it was apparent to her, from the beginning of her career, that she was typically the only woman at the discussion table.
“In that industry, I knew I was one of few,” she said. “I made a decision very early on that, in order to be heard, I had to be among the groups that were in the conversation.”
Steimle-App also had work to refute the stereotype of women traditionally being in administrative roles. She recalled a conversation she had early in her career where she had to explain to a colleague that her strength was not in the support role.
“Although it can be a great position for those who have that strength, it wasn’t mine,” Steimle-App said. “I wanted to make sure my strength was seen in the area I was serving.”
Steimle-App has worked in the real estate and development sector for the past 18 years, building a vast knowledge of the industry, in addition to skills in teamwork, communication and identifying areas of improvement.
In her experience, Steimle-App has noticed more women are at the discussion table as opposed to in years prior, although obstacles like equality of pay still remain. She said it would take an ongoing effort on the part of the community to overcome these issues.
“I’ve been blessed to find a network of women throughout the Grand Rapids community that have been very supportive,” she said. “I make sure to do what I can to be supportive, as well.”
In addition to her professional life, Steimle-App has served on a number community and business groups, like the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, the mayor’s Housing Advisory Committee, Grand Rapids Housing Commission, Local First and Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, previous Business Journal reports have noted.
“In a lot of industries, there’s this perception that it is a male-dominated industry,” Steimle-App said. “Maybe that provides a fear or a pause of, ‘Is this really something I want to get into?’ I think that the thing for any industry and what’s important to us at Rockford is to break down that barrier. I think it takes getting in front of students and young girls that this is a possibility for them.”
Rockford CFO Julie Towner’s 25 years of industry experience gave her a voice that was heard when she first came through Rockford’s door. Her financial management and tax planning experience have since helped grow the company to an over 300-person firm.
Personally, Towner would argue the biggest challenge for her is balancing her career with her home life. Especially with the boom of construction in the last decade, the demand on Towner’s job has increased tremendously, she said.
While her job is not necessarily the face of Rockford, Towner’s behind-the-scenes work, including building policies, processing and reporting, has helped Rockford grow to over $400 million in yearly revenue.
Towner added over 25% of Rockford’s staff members are women, which is well above the national average but still the minority.
Through her authority, Towner was conscious to not only make sure her voice was heard but that the voices of other women were heard, as well.
“I would say stereotypes are the biggest obstacle (to construction) both in the community but also in our education system,” Towner said. “Little girls don’t have a lot of role models in a traditionally male-dominated industry.”
She also agreed the industry has to reach girls at a younger age to raise awareness about the many opportunities and facets in construction.
“If you enjoy doing things with your hands, that can be something you can do,” Towner said. “If you enjoy solving problems, construction is a great industry for you. I would encourage young women that you don’t have to necessarily be building a building. There are so many facets that the opportunities are endless.”
Towner said, while she thinks schools have gone astray from promoting trades, a number of schools in the area are doing a better job of having programs for students to get them into hands-on-type careers. Currently, Rockford supports those activities through career fairs and offering tours at construction sites.
The Associated Builders and Contractors Western Michigan Chapter also recognizes a deficit in women among the ranks of construction professionals, citing again the 9% figure, but lack of capacity has prevented the organization from creating programs that are female specific.
Amy Pierce-Danders, director of workforce development for ABCWMC, said the organization does have experiential learning tours for K-12 students. In addition to putting kids in safety gear and taking them out to job sites to see trades in action, the organization also exposes them to estimating, marketing, project management and all other facets of the industry.
“We’re very intentional around introducing the females in our trade to females in a group,” Pierce-Danders added. “We believe people learn best from people who look like them.”
Oftentimes, ABCWMC is asked to come into the classroom and support a teacher or counselor in promoting skilled trades.
ABCWMC is in preliminary conversations with Weld Like a Girl, a Yuma, Arizona-based organization that describes itself as an empowerment project for girls and women to boost self-esteem through welding.
Weld Like a Girl is not a formal institute, but it does offer classes and resources to inspire women to pursue careers in welding. ABCWMC is hoping to replicate its work in West Michigan.