7 Women Who Paved the Construction Industry
As we celebrate and recognize the many women working throughout the construction industry during Women in Construction (WIC) Week, we want to take a moment to recognize those who paved the way.
Women were mentioned as construction workers as early as the 13th century. In the 19th century, individual women began defying gender restrictions to fill important construction roles, although their contributions were not fully realized at the time. From the woman who supervised construction of the Brooklyn Bridge when her husband became ill to the first female architects to an originator of ergonomic design, these women made history and paved the way for future generations of women in the field.
World War II gave women new opportunities for non-traditional work. By 1943, with thousands of men serving overseas in the military, women were filling many of the country's critical mechanical, technical, and physical labor roles. Rosie the Riveter became a symbol of the times. Westinghouse trained dozens of women in electrical engineering because of the shortage of male workers. But when the war ended, many of these opportunities evaporated.
As labor shortages continue to grow in the construction industry, bringing additional women into the workforce represents and opportunity. In addition, a 2020 report by McKinsey & Co. showed that highly gender-diverse companies are 25% more likely to achieve above-average profitability than companies with less diversity. Plus, we already know women have a lot to offer in a competitive industry like construction.
We recognize and applaud the following six women for their participation in architecture, engineering and construction, and their names may not be as famous as some of their male counterparts, but the industry would not be the same today without their contributions.
LADY ELIZABETH WILBRAHAM (1632 - 1705)
Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham is the first known woman architect to draw up her own designs. She designed grand houses for her extended family. Wilbraham may have been involved in hundreds of other buildings for which she could not take credit at the time, including several London churches which are officially attributed to famous architect Christopher Wren.
EMILY WARREN ROEBLING (1843 - 1903)
Emily Roebling became one of the first documented women in construction. In 1872, after her husband fell ill, Roebling took over as a representative of his position of chief engineer to oversee the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge. Although her husband retained the title, Roebling carried out the duties of Chief Engineer knowledgably --- learning materials science, stress analysis and cable performance --- to serve as project manager and construction supervisor for 11 years until the project's completion. Roebling was also honored as the first person to ever walk across it.
ETHEL CHARLES (1871 - 1962)
In 1898, the first woman architect gained full professional recognition in England when Ethel Charles was admitted to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Unable to win large commissions, she worked on improving laborer' cottages. Her designs are now regarded as significant contributions to the garden city concept, in which residential communities are surrounded with greenbelt land.
JULIA MORGAN (1872 - 1957)
After gaining a degree in civil engineering from the University of California in 1989, Julia Morgan was the first woman to be admitted to the renowned architecture program at Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris. She returned to California and became the first licensed female architect in the state and an outstanding residential designer in the Arts and Crafts style. Her most famous residence, however, was Hearst Castle, for which she applied her knowledge of classical architecture and reinforced concrete. She was both designer and construction supervisor on the 28-year project.
EDITH CLARKE (1883 - 1959)
Edith Clarke is an important figure in the field of electrical engineering. In 1921, she patented a graphing calculator used to solve power transmission line problems, and she was later involved in offering electrical engineering solutions for dam building. She was the first woman to earn a Master's degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT and went on to teach electrical engineering later in her career. Her inventions, including the graphing calculator, are still used today.
LILLIAN GILBRETH (1878 - 1972)
Lillian Gilbreth is credited with many "firsts" in the field of engineering, including household appliance and kitchen designs, many of which are still used today in residential design and construction. In 1926, she became the first female member of the Society of Mechanical Engineers; in 1951, she was the first woman to earn a PHD in engineering; and in 1965 (when she was in her late 80s), she became the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Heralded as a pioneer in the field of industrial engineering and psychology, Gilbreth focused on the human side of residential and office construction through human factor design and ergonomics as well as construction processes.
ELSIE EAVES (1898 - 1983)
Elsie Eaves became the first women to be inducted as a full member of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1927. Although she managed many major projects, her most important contribution was her concept of collecting data to track and report trends and spending with construction projects. She invented databases before there were even computers and had a significant impact on how residential and commercial building projects are managed today.
Of course, there are many more women who worked to move the industry forward with dedication, innovation, and inspiration throughout history.
Today, the construction industry remains predominantly male. Only 10.9% of the industry workforce are women, and most of them are office workers. On the jobsite, women account for one out of every 100 workers and technicians. Though still perceived as a male-dominated industry in the 21st century, women have and will continue to significantly impact the industry as we know it.