elec ladder MUSC SJ Childrens Hosp.jpg (copy) (copy)

Maria Roberts installs electrical conduit on the 10th floor of the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children's Hospital. Across the construction industry, women make up just under 10 percent of the workforce. File/Wade Spees/Staff

A local organization for women working in the construction industry has quickly become the largest and fastest-growing chapter of its kind in its region.

That's a testament, members said, to both the Charleston area's robust building trade and the community they've formed over the group's first months. 

"It's a professional network, but it's also a sisterhood," said Lindsay Mazell, a charter member and the chapter's membership coordinator. 

The Charleston-based Palmetto Chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction officially launched last August with 49 charter members. Since then, the organization has grown to represent about 70 women whose jobs range from field superintendents to engineers to business owners. 

Since it started in 1953, the National Association of Women in Construction has grown to include dozens of chapters nationwide.

There was a definite need in Charleston for a chapter, said the group's president, Janet Bates, who also is the director of marketing and business development at CF Evans Construction.

Some women had been making the about two-hour drive from Charleston to Columbia to participate in their chapter's monthly meetings, she said. 

Just meeting other local women who work in the construction industry has been somewhat eye-opening, said Megan Bultman, a project manager at ECS Southeast in North Charleston. 

She isn't used to being around other women on the job, so seeing so many women at the chartering ceremony was "kind of amazing," she said.

Bultman now sees those women regularly, at monthly chapter meetings, committee planning sessions and other functions.  

Women still make up just under 10 percent of the construction industry, according to 2018 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That percentage has gone up slightly from 9.1 percent in 2016. 

In a place like Charleston where construction workers are in high demand — the most recent figures from the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce put the projected growth rate for local construction jobs at about 7 percent — the industry would benefit from bringing more women into the business, said Danielle Minetti, the chapter's president-elect.

"It's not a question of whether or not we can or can't do something," Minetti said of construction jobs, whether in office settings or out in the field. "We can, and we bring passion to it." 

Helping to address those labor force gaps is one of the priorities that Bates mentioned at last week's Charleston City Council meeting. Mayor John Tecklenburg had opened the session by proclaiming the first week in March as Charleston's first "Women in Construction Week."

"These women are powerful, and they have a voice in this community that's unceasing," Bates said to Council.

And there is a particular interest among the group, she said, in engaging children as early as elementary school in activities that get them thinking about careers in construction. 

This week's events include a building competition for children ages 5 to 11 and a booth at STEM Fest, an annual event for children and teens in Ladson. 

Other "WIC Week" events include a meeting with first-term U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, a panel discussion on sexual harassment in the workplace and several "hard hat tours" of in-progress job sites. 

In addition to their seven-day slate of activities, the group is also preparing to host an annual conference in the fall for chapters in NAWIC's South Atlantic region, which includes North and South Carolina and Virginia. 

It might have been ambitious to take on conference hosting duties barely a year after their chartering, Bates said, but their willingness to take it on just contributes to the message they're trying to send. 

"We get things done," Minetti said.

Bultman, who was also a charter member, volunteered to lead planning for the conference. It's definitely something different for her, she said. With her busy work schedule, taking a leadership role in an organization wasn't necessarily on her to-do list. 

Bultman works out in the field every day, something she said she loves about her job. At the group's last meeting, she came straight from work, wearing her reflective shirt and work boots.

Her attitude toward taking on new NAWIC responsibilities is similar to her take on working in a male-dominated industry: "I want to do it, so I'm going to do it." 

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and employment. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter, which is published twice a week. Before moving to Charleston, her byline appeared in The Boston Globe.