For many years, construction has been considered an activity only for men. And though prejudice against women who choose disciplines directly related to this field, like engineering or architecture, has gradually been decreasing, there is still a huge inequality gap.
The importance of these activities is that engineering and architecture, as the basis of the construction industry, enclose endless fields in the development of services, works and infrastructure projects, which drive the economic growth of any country. Moreover, these fields produce knowledge that is applied in different ways to get innovative solutions; and in both disciplines, men and women have dedicated their lives to provide better cities and services.
In 1902, Julia Morgan (1872-1957), from San Francisco, California, who studied at the Paris École des Beaux Arts, became the first woman architect in the world; however, being accepted at the École was not an easy task. In 1896 she had been rejected. One year later, due to the support of the French Union of Women Artists, she was given authorization to take the entrance examination.
Ten years later, Elisa Leonida Zamifrescu (1887-1973) graduated as the first woman engineer in the world. Born in Galati, Rumania, after concluding high school, Zaminfrescu tried to register at the Bucarest Roads and Bridges College, but was rejected. She had to move to Berlin, and in 1909, she registered at the Royal Technical Academy. Once there, the dean tried to persuade her to leave school, quoting the three K’s: “kirche, kinder, küche” (church, children, kitchen), the only activities suitable for women at that time. Her schoolmates ignored her, and when one of her professors saw her in class he yelled: “Kitchen is the place for women, not Academy.” Despite all the obstacles, she graduated with honors and the dean told her she was, “the most diligent among the diligent.”
In Mexico, Concepcion Mendizabal was the first woman that graduated as a Civil Engineer from the National School of Engineering, an institution which had been educating men for more that 110 years. Mendizabal graduated in 1930 with the theses project of a high reinforced concrete tower for 300 m3 of water, of 20 meters tall, with a lookout on its upper part; developing the main construction details. She was fortunate enough to be the daughter of an engineer who graduated from the same school. Such circumstance, and her perseverance, made her achieve something unthinkable for a conservative country.
In 1939, Maria Luisa Dehesa y Gomez Farias, born in Xalapa, Veracruz (1912-2000), became the first woman architect in Mexico and Latin America. She graduated from the San Carlos Academy, part of the National University of Mexico (UNAM today). She faced discrimination from her teachers, who thought no woman should be an architect. After overcoming every obstacle, she graduated with honors with the theses project Artillery Barracks Prototype. Her father use to say: “You must learn about everything; you are the eldest of the family, so you are the man of this house.” It is said that Maria Luisa once asked one of her teachers why he didn’t let her take part in class discussions, to which he answered, “The only thing I can learn from you is how to cook soup.”
Nowadays, in Mexico, from the total number of engineering graduates, 18 percent are women, and 35 percent when it comes to architecture, a figure that has been maintained during the last decade. On the other hand, in Spain, the percentage of women engineers has decreased from 17 to 10 percent, due to lack of opportunities.
In Mexico, as national vice president of Women Entrepreneurs, a division of the Mexican Construction Industry Chamber (CMIC), led by Gustavo Arballo Lujan, our national president, we are supporting women that work in this highly important field. We have increased the number of women driving companies from 4.7 to 14.5 percent, of a total of 11,000 members.
Nevertheless, even when the share has increased, the inequality gap is still huge; not only in terms of number of contracts, but in economic remuneration. Despite official speech, and public commitment made by politicians (except for very few cases), reality is different. Political will, a real change in how we structurally and culturally conceive our field, and deep awareness are needed for women to be considered the same way as men, with the same opportunities and the same rights.
As it is well known, poverty is harder among women in times of crisis, as the one we are living right now; so, fitting public policies must be designed as a mitigation mechanism.
Through regional coordinators, CMIC Women Entrepreneurs is thrusting training on non-traditional activities for women in poverty. These activities are at the core of construction industry: plumbing, finishing, electricity and welding workshops, as well as training for heavy machinery operators — we have already trained the first women in Chiapas and Nuevo León.
All this aims at providing tools and abilities to women, who might gradually integrate to the construction industry and, soon, be part of the team. They will be able to build their own houses; however, we are aware that to achieve such goals we need public and private participation, as much as the society as a whole, to improve conditions for women who dare face challenges in a historically manly world.
To this day, we have already trained more than 7,000 women across the country; they are just waiting to be considered for a better job opportunity. Such is the challenge.