A tour of a commercial general contractor’s office might not immediately pique the interest of the teenagers who attend Auburn University’s weeklong Construction Management Summer Academy for Young Women.
But, as their bus pulls closer to the destination, camp leader Lauren Redden, an associate professor at Auburn’s McWhorter School of Building Science, tells them something like this: “What you’re about to see is something that I couldn’t explain to you … even a video doesn’t do it justice.”
Soon, they’re staring wide-eyed at a sleek, high-end office that might look no different from a stereotypical Silicon Valley startup—lots of technology, a full fitness center, a wellness area for meditation and, as Redden describes it, the nicest bathroom they’ve probably ever seen.
“Young people, particularly young girls, have a tendency to not be able to envision themselves in anything other than what they know,” Redden said. “For a young 16-year-old girl, I can only tell her so much. I want her to see what kind of office she would work in.”
The tour and the camp are both strategic, introducing the possibilities of a career in construction in all its forms to a demographic that historically hasn’t been encouraged to consider it. Women comprise only 11% of the industry’s labor force, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
And, in just a few short years since launching the camp, Redden is celebrating success. The enrollment of female students in Auburn’s undergraduate building science program has increased by 6% since 2019.
Even current female Auburn students who never attended the program have told her that the camp’s existence sends a strong message of support in a department where they still are the minority. Women comprise 13% of all undergraduate and graduate students in Auburn’s building science program, according to the school’s Office of Institutional Research.
“We’ve received a lot of feedback from current female students that says, ‘You offering a program like this for high school students makes me feel like I’m welcomed in,’” Redden said.
No pressure space
Unlike the teen girls who attend her camp, Redden didn’t know anything about careers in construction when she entered Auburn as a freshman nearly two decades ago. Her plan was to become an architect. But, after a semester of architecture classes, she knew it wasn’t for her.
Redden started scanning other possible majors where she could lean into her love of math, teamwork and tangible results and was steered to Auburn’s building science program. Even though she was one of only a handful of other female students, she’d found where she belonged.
“I loved it,” said Redden, who earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in building construction from Auburn. She worked in the industry for six years before returning to Auburn in 2015 to teach. As the only female faculty member on staff at the time of her hire, she began fielding questions about how to increase enrollment of women.
Early after returning to Auburn, she had helped to revive a building and construction camp for male and female high school students, which proved popular but didn’t attract many girls. After visiting Colorado State University’s Women in Construction Management Summer Institute in 2018 for pointers, she launched Auburn’s program for young women the following year.
“I just wanted to offer a separate camp that gives those environmental factors of just a safe space for young girls, who are 15 or 16 years old, to feel like [they] can explore this without some of those pressures,” she said.
‘Best of the best’ of Auburn
The overnight program is offered entirely free for every girl who attends thanks to industry sponsorships, opening it up to families who couldn’t afford the $1,000 cost. The long days include an introduction to the full gamut of construction topics—safety, materials, technology, blueprint reading, robotics, pre-construction services, trades and more. The teens tour an active jobsite, take part in an equipment rodeo and complete hands-on construction projects.
“They really get the best of the best of our program,” Redden said.
That showcase of all that Auburn’s construction program has to offer is working. This fall, four former campers will return to the Auburn campus as freshmen with plans to study construction. They’ll join another former camper, who started studying construction at Auburn in 2022.
Redden hopes it’s just the beginning of a trend—whether students choose Auburn, go to trade school, study construction management elsewhere or choose another path.
“One person said to me, ‘Instead of filling one cup of water, I’m filling the whole bathtub,’” she said. “I’m educating a lot of young women about it, and then they can go tell other people about it. Whether or not they choose it, they just know [that this is an option], which is something I didn’t know.”
Mentor and ask
As Redden actively works to bring more women into the construction industry, she has two messages for employers.
First, mentor them. “The mentors I had when I was in the industry, they were all male, but they poured into me; they knew that I wanted to be as much as I could be, and they saw that potential,” she said. “The young women that are getting into our industry, they love it. They want to know more. They want to be poured into, so make sure you’re doing that.”
Second, take time to find out what could help them do their job better. “If you’re not the majority that’s taking up space in the room, then the needs of those people can be overlooked. Continue to ask, ‘Hey, is there anything that you need?’ Because they’re not always going to be able to voice it.”