July 25, 2023

Women in Construction: Working Toward a More Equitable Industry

Women in Construction

Bensonwood’s culture is steeped in a rare combination of tradition and innovation. Though established for 50 years, we are anything but stagnant-constantly working to break stereotypes and elevate the next generation of dedicated craftspeople. Construction, manufacturing, engineering and architecture have long been male-dominated industries, but times are changing. With labor shortages increasing and barriers to entry fading, we not only want women in these labor-focused career paths… we need them.

A History of Underrepresentation  

When a girl dreams about what she wants to be when she grows up, she needs to have options on the menu. Without intentional outreach efforts by the construction industry, many will continue to envision it as an “old boys club” or an unwelcoming career for aspiring women. Even Bensonwood, in its early days, only sported men’s bathrooms outside its timber frame and woodworking shops. Down to the very terminology like “man hours” and “craftsmanship,” there are outdated characteristics of these industries that could use a refresh. As one of our building partners, Mason Lord, so eloquently said: “If you’re not exposed to the trades, the spark doesn’t get lit, and you don’t know what you don’t know.” Women do tend to have better representation in offsite fabrication companies compared to conventional construction, though as a whole we have far to go.

When a girl dreams about what she wants to be when she grows up, she needs to have options on the menu.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction and similar labor-focused industries employ well over 7 million workers annually, with women making up only 10.9% in 2022 and earning an average of 82% of what men make. The National Center for Construction Education and Research noted that as of 2018, workers over 55 increased to over 22% of the workforce—and that number is growing. New Hampshire is among the top ten states who have the largest aging population and is falling short on replacing skilled workers. Among these staggering labor shortages, industry leaders are realizing the importance of steering more women towards the trades.

It’s not just construction that has been historically male-dominated, women are woefully underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professions despite making up nearly half the workforce. This includes Architects, Engineers, Architectural Designers, Virtual Fabricators and much more. With professional and management roles in the STEM fields, there is a significant gender gap with women making up to 17% less than their male counterparts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

Though still underrepresented, there tend to be higher numbers of women in office-related roles compared to labor or manufacturing roles. Women comprised less than 30% of the manufacturing industry in 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, sparking efforts to change that narrative. One of Bensonwood’s priorities is to continue the baseline structural work of cultivating a welcoming, positive workplace for all people regardless of gender. We are consistently above industry-standards with our ratio of female employees and have a goal of increasing our retention efforts. Whether working on our building system’s manufacturing line or doing office-based work, we want dedicated women as a part of our team.   

Many barriers to entry for women in construction have greatly diminished over the years. Any notion that the work that is “too physically demanding” just isn’t correct. With more automation and better use of technology, especially with high-performance off-site fabrication, there is less need for folks to swing hammers and more need for machine operators. While toolbelt jobs are still very much in demand, the toll on the body is increasingly a non-issue. There are many opportunities to gain expertise across a wide variety of areas depending on skillsets and interests.

For office-based work such as Architectural Engineering, Procurement, Design, and Project Management long-term retention of women is on the low end, thus exacerbating the status quo. Some barriers to entry are still prevalent; including gender pay disparities, lack of intentional recruitment of women, and minimal education and growth opportunities for those in the construction field. Bensonwood prides itself on being willing to train and educate, paying a fair wage to all and offering professional development opportunities to grow a meaningful career. 

For women who don’t attend college, one option is to pursue the service industry. However, there are more opportunities to make a higher wage in the construction industry, even with little to no experience. With off-site fabrication as with Bensonwood’s building systems, there are innumerable opportunities to develop skills apart from standard tool use—such as becoming a Routech Operator or doing CAD work. Construction is also an excellent option for women looking to switch careers or enter the workforce after a resume gap, due to the sheer number of open positions and companies increasingly willing to train those with no experience.

The Scandinavian countries, where Bensonwood has historical roots, are global leaders when it comes to equal representation of men and women in the workforce. In 2003, Norway introduced a 40% female representation quota in construction and off-site fabrication, with the national average consistently reaching 35%. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Gender Gap report, Iceland leads with the share of women in technical roles. The report also shows steady increases in the share of women hired into senior leadership positions and highlights the increasing need for female workers in STEM fields. Sweden is known as the benchmark country for off-site manufacturing and leads in female representation on management boards. Bensonwood has a strong Swedish influence and aims to follow their lead in terms of best manufacturing practices and the pursuit of workforce equality.

Women in Leadership

It takes a village to steer a visionary company like Bensonwood. Christine Benson, MBA, is the wife of Tedd Benson and helped shape the business from the very beginning as a Founding Partner. Though she considers herself more of a behind-the-scenes leader, her knowledge of business finance has been essential in growing Bensonwood and its subsidiaries into the thriving force it is today. 

Emily Benson, the Employee Success Officer at Bensonwood and daughter of the Founders, holds her PhD in Management with a focus on understanding careers through a feminist lens. In addition to publishing numerous academic articles and book chapters, Emily was formerly an Associate Professor of Management at Keene State College and has done research on pregnancy in the workplace. Her work was recently referenced in author Stephanie Kramer’s book, Carry Strong: An Empowered Approach to Navigating Pregnancy in the Workplace (2023). Her long-term goal is to not only increase the diversity of Bensonwood’s employees, but to also build out robust training for the leadership and management to ensure a welcoming workplace for all.  

As an active member of the New Hampshire Chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction, we understand the importance of self-education and participating in professional development to better understand the gender gaps in construction. While we are slightly above industry standards in terms of diversity of employees, with women and minorities encouraged to apply, Emily notes getting more women into construction requires more than just posting positions. It takes intentional outreach and proper structures in place to retain them long-term. Bensonwood is focused on the full lifecycle of the employee, offering a plethora of on-the-job training and professional development. With the aging population in New Hampshire and the growing need to develop a construction workforce, Emily says, “We are going to fail in achieving our growth plans if we don’t make a concerted effort to offer attractive careers for women.”

Bensonwood has many women in leadership positions across the organization; including the Founder, Officers, Architectural Project Managers, CAD and Architectural Designers, Marketing Directors, and Sales Managers to name a few. We also have many featured alumnae that have grown their careers here, some of which are in leadership positions at their respective companies. While we still have a long way to go, our leadership continues to push forward to make Bensonwood a more welcoming place for women and a place of inspiration for young girls. 

“We are going to fail in achieving our growth plans if we don’t make a concerted effort to offer attractive careers for women.” – Emily Benson

Educating The Next Generation

Bensonwood has a long history and passion for educating the next generation of sustainable home builders. With Emily Benson at the helm of Employee Success, we are building out an exciting new formal apprenticeship program in collaboration with the state of New Hampshire. Apprentices will have formal mentorship, and the program will go through a rigorous approval process in alignment with government competencies. The hope is to attract more women from adult education programs, high schools, and the community college system to pursue hands-on apprenticeships where they will learn foundational skills and participate in their choice of coursework.

There have been many female interns at Bensonwood working to advance their education and skills. Tess, a Senior at Keene State College, is working as a summer intern with the woodworking department. She took woodworking in high school and has always had an interest in learning more about it, with the long-term goal of studying to become an architect in Boston. 

Another intern, Anne, is doing her practical semester at Bensonwood through her German college HAWK Hildesheim Holzminden Göttingen. She originally got connected to us by recommendation of her CAD teacher as a conducive place for her final Bachelor CAD project. As a student in her sixth of seven semesters studying wood engineering, her project was to create a stair module through CAD to make the process faster and easier. Prior to her work, every single stair step had to be created manually in CAD. However, in 2dv there is now a variant (which she wrote) which enables the 3d model to pop up with stairs already there. Anne has also been able to shadow many different positions in design, woodworking, and timber framing during her time here, and is looking forward to presenting her final CAD project for her thesis.

Bensonwood is a long-standing partner of The Heartwood School, established in 1978 and closely connected to the Timber Framers Guild, which teaches timber framing and building arts. Classes are held in Alstead, New Hampshire, in the original Benson Woodworking shop where we spent our formative years timber framing and fabricating architectural millwork. Heartwood offers a unique timber framing course specifically for women and gender non-conforming folks. This course is offered as a comfortable space to learn the basics of timber framing for people who may not feel welcomed in the predominantly male construction culture. The course is also taught by two female timber framers. Participants in these courses frequently tour Bensonwood as a part of their education about how local companies build with timber. 

The hope is to attract more women from adult education programs, high schools, and the community college system to pursue hands-on apprenticeships where they will learn foundational skills and participate in their choice of coursework.

We have notable female alumnae who have contributed greatly to the company, many of which are leaders in their field. Georgie Bittenbender is a former woodworker, who now works in agriculture and outdoor education: 

“In the woodworking shop, an impressive aspect of working there was the culture. While working in a male dominated field will have its obstacles, what I valued in my colleagues and leaders was that my voice and opinions were valued and taken seriously. The woodworking shop helped me set a standard for jobs going forward in life, to be respected and heard in the workplace, like I was in the shop. By the time I left, I was one of three women in the shop. This was exciting growth to see and proof of how gender diversity is increasingly valued there.” -Georgie Bittenbender

Another alumna is Beth Campbell, former Project Manager at Bensonwood’s subsidiary, Unity Homes. Beth is passionate about scaling high efficiency construction and encouraging other women to enter the field. Throughout her years in the field, she often found herself as the only woman on a jobsite, frequently asked if she was the interior designer or homeowner while she was the Project Manager in charge. With over 20 years of experience, Beth now works as the Client Success Manager at the software company “Seamless,” a platform spun out of the Bensonwood legacy that helps professionals build high-performance projects more efficiently.  

Beth initially got into construction while working on various community projects such as earthen playground features at the Madison Children’s Museum in Wisconsin. She gained experience through several roles as a project manager and project Engineer and even built her own high-performance tiny home in Missouri. During her time at Unity Homes, Beth presented at the “She Who Constructs” Passive House Accelerator Summit and spoke at numerous other conferences. As the former Vice President of Passive House Northwest, a Certified Phius Passive House Builder Instructor, and Certified Sustainable Homes Professional, she continues to share her expertise by volunteering with the City of Keene’s Committee on Energy and Climate and supporting the organization “Girls Build.” She has also been awarded the Woman of Vision award by the Daily Journal of Commerce, which supports women who shape their built environment through leadership, mentoring efforts, community involvement and the promotion of industry diversity. 

There is a lot more room for women as Project Managers in construction and related fields. As Beth notes, “Just showing up on the job site is my social justice work for the day.” 

“Just showing up on the job site is my social justice work for the day”. – Beth Campbell

Looking Ahead

While tradition is a core pillar of Bensonwood’s ethos, the deeply embedded stereotypes of the construction, manufacturing, engineering and architecture industries need to change. To build resiliency into the sustainable home building craft, more women are needed or progress will remain stifled. It should be a collaborative effort on the part of industry leaders, the education sector, workers and professionals to actively promote proper representation and cast the vision that women can succeed in these professions. We not only care about our homeowners, we also care about the people building them. As Founder Tedd Benson once said, “With peoples’ lives as our focus, there’s no such thing as good enough; there’s always something we can improve.” As a company that values the economic and professional growth of women, we will continue the good work of making everyone feel welcome. We not only want women here, we need them.