More than 9,000 homes and apartments are slated to be built across the Lowcountry this year, not to mention new schools, hotels and commercial development. 

Despite this hotbed of activity and South Carolina's record high employment rate, few women will construct any of these buildings. 

Women make up only 9.1 percent of the construction in the United States, a number that has increased over time but still has significant growth potential. Though the construction industry has long been dominated by men, that's something a local group of women is fighting to change.

Last month, a group of 42 new chapter members of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) gathered in North Charleston for the organizational meeting of the Palmetto Chapter. Their formal chartering ceremony is scheduled for Aug. 28.

The new chapter is being sponsored by the NAWIC of Columbia after group members learned that women from the Lowcountry were commuting to attend their events. They decided it was time for a local chapter.

The organization’s purpose is to enhance the success of women in the construction area. They do this through education, networking, leadership development, community outreach, scholarships and mentoring.

Sharon Benzenberg discovered NAWIC when her company, Summerville-based Knight’s Companies, expanded its Redi-Mix concrete segment to the Midlands. As a sales coordinator, Benzenberg initially thought joining the organization would help her grow sales through networking.

“What I quickly realized was that I get way more out of giving back, supporting and connecting with these other women who share similar passions and face similar challenges working in a male-dominated industry,” she said.

Benzenberg since been elected to serve as the Palmetto Chapter’s vice president and looks forward to no longer having to commute to Columbia for meetings.

More than 23,000 people were employed within the construction industry in the Charleston area last year, but it’s still not enough.

“Women are the response to the labor shortage in the construction industry,” said Janet Bates, director of marketing at C.F. Evans Construction.

Bates initially volunteered as temporary chair during the NAWIC startup process. She was recently elected to serve as the local chapter's president. 

Bates’ career in construction began when she interned with C.F. Evans Construction while pursuing her MBA at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The position quickly evolved into a full-time role, and now, she is the only female member of the company’s executive team.

When people think of the construction industry, a job-site typically comes to mind. “While there are certainly female sub-contractors and construction engineers, what many women don’t realize is that there are opportunities in a variety of other areas including accounting, project management, marketing, pre-construction and more,” said Bates. “The opportunities are really limitless.”

Of the 939,000 women who were employed in the construction industry in 2016, an estimated 45 percent worked in sales and office roles and 31 percent in professional and management positions.

“There’s a presumed lack of job flexibility that can be off-putting to women, and a tarnished reputation resulting from a dated ‘boys will be boys’ culture that enabled workplace sexual harassment,” said Bates.

In a state that doesn’t require paid parental leave and where child care costs that can eat up almost half of a paycheck, employers in the construction industry must promote a more inclusive work environment in order to recruit and retain female workers.

Bates said she feels very fortunate to work for a family-owned business that values, respects and empowers her. But she is also aware that is not the case for many women in the industry. Recognizing that women can be more powerful when they work together, she is confident that together they can shatter the glass ceiling.

In addition to helping its members experience a safe workplace environment through education and training initiatives, NAWIC also helps construction companies, recruiters and hiring managers communicate their job openings to women in various fields of the industry at the national and local levels.

The NAWIC Palmetto Chapter will host its first general membership meeting on Sept. 25 at the Charleston Electrical Contractors Association office in North Charleston. All women in the tri-county area that employed in a construction industry-related field are welcome to attend. For more information, email Janet Bates at jbates@cfevans.com.