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Idaho has high marks for women-owned businesses, but not in all industries

Anyone with a shred of interest in Treasure Valley business knows that it was the real estate and construction sectors that helped the economy soar in the middle of the past decade, and it was the same industries that led the way over the cliff just a few memorable years later.

Our readers pay a lot of attention to that sector as we make our way out of the economic hole. Thanks to the wonders of website analytics and the mixed blessing of Twitter and Facebook, we can tell that our stories on those topics usually get the most traffic. Readers want to know what’s opening, what’s closing, what’s moving, what’s growing and how many square feet various new buildings will occupy. They show keen interest in stories forecasting local housing trends and parsing commercial real estate plans.

Well, here’s a new piece of information for the construction and real estate news follower: More women need to get into the field.

American Express Open’s annual report on women-owned firms tells us that overall, Idaho is a leader when it comes to female ownership of businesses overall. In economic clout, Idaho’s women-owned firms rank 13th in the country. That’s a combination of employment growth in women-owned firms, growth in firm revenues and growth in number of firms – and the latter figure hardly favors a small state like Idaho.

Idaho has some strong programs aimed at helping women start new businesses and keep them going, among them the Idaho Women’s Business Center and the Zions Bank Smart Women Grants program. State Treasurer Ron Crane runs a well-attended, free Smart Women, Smart Money symposium each year, and Go Lead Idaho works to get more women into leadership and policy-making roles. Idaho’s Small Business Development Center runs an Idaho Working Women’s Business Symposium.

That’s great; those efforts seem to be working. But like other states, Idaho has a small share of women-owned businesses in the construction sector.  The industries with the lowest concentration of women-owned firms are construction (just 8 percent of these firms are owned by women) and finance and insurance (20 percent).

Nationally, women tend to own businesses in sectors like health and education. According to the report, which was put out by AmEx’s small business arm, the industries with the highest share of women-owned firms are health care and social assistance (53 percent of firms, compared to a 29 percent share overall) and educational services (45 percent are women-owned).

There are specialized efforts to get more girls and women into construction, too. The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers at Boise State University has a free engineering and computer science camp for girls, and the Boise chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction runs a construction trades camp for girls each year at the Renaissance Professional-Professional Technical Center in Meridian. There are similar efforts under way at other schools.

I asked a few of the local women who work in leadership roles in construction what keeps women out of the construction field. Risa Roe, who owns the Boise construction company Roe Enterprises LLC, said she grew up helping her father work on engines, and that made her more comfortable in the male-dominated construction culture. Anita Keil, director of estimating for the large construction company Engineered Structures Inc., learned welding from her father and earned a degree in civil engineering.

“There is a big difference between men and women; there’s no getting around that,” said Roe. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like news to anyone in the workplace, but Roe’s work in a construction business has given her some interesting insights on what it takes to succeed in the field.

“The way men relate to each other can be offensive if you haven’t learned acclimation at a young age,” she said.

There are some practical reasons why women might steer clear of construction, and choose health and education careers. Keil thinks construction’s hours are a deterrent to women who have primary responsibility for children. Keil was on site when ESI poured concrete for the 8th and Main tower last summer, and work started at 1 a.m. Luckily, her husband is available to help with the children.

Another practical reason: Young women typically don’t choose entry-level construction jobs. Therefore, they don’t get as many chances to find an affinity for the field and work their way up to leadership positions, Roe noted.

“The decisions made in management and ownership have to reflect intuition, experience and knowledge that they can only gain from having been in the field,” she said, adding, “I haven’t been in the field, and I have surrounded myself by people I trust who I can call upon.”

Whatever it is keeping women out of the construction trades, it’s clear change is happening in Idaho. The Open report said the number of women-owned firms in Idaho grew 42 percent between 1997 and 2012. It will be interesting to see what it takes for women’s influence to grow in fields where they’re underrepresented.

Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of the Idaho Business Review.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.