GRAND RAPIDS — For much of her career, Jacey Ehmann was the only woman in the room.
While that’s often still true for women in the construction industry, Ehmann is working within her own firm, Grand Rapids-based Metric Structures LLC, to foster a more inclusive environment. At Metric Structures, a majority of the staff are women.
“It made me more curious than critical, and I was intrigued by why we didn’t see more women in the construction industry,” Ehmann said. “We’re kind of working to change that narrative, not just for women, but for our entire community and team.”
As a female business owner, Ehmann is a rarity not just in construction but for companies in general. An Inforum report on women’s leadership at Michigan’s top public companies shows the numbers of women in leadership positions are still well below the number of men.
According to the findings, 21 percent of Michigan’s public companies have women directors; 12 percent of the companies have women as C-suite executives and 19 percent have women executive officers. For women of color, the numbers are much lower. Two percent of companies have directors or executive officers who are women of color.
At a time in Michigan when companies are struggling to find needed talent, having inclusive policies and practices are important for attracting and retaining female talent, said Terry Barclay, president and CEO of Inforum, a Detroit-based nonprofit that helps companies boost talent initiatives for women.
“The reason companies are so focused on achieving better balance in genders is it’s about talent,” Barclay said. “Women are more than half of college graduates. There’s gender parity in hiring for entry-level jobs. But we have, from a gender perspective, a broken first rung.”
Barclay was referring to the so-called corporate ladder. For entry-level positions, women are nearly half of all employees. On the next rung of the corporate ladder, the percentage of women employees drops by 10 percent. This is the largest gap in the corporate ladder for women, but the numbers of women continue to dwindle up to the C-suite level.
Ehmann did not set out to have a staff that is mostly made up of women, but believes she created an environment that is inclusive of unique policies that help women succeed at work.
“We really have a culture of being supportive instead of competitive,” she said. “We have an unlimited vacation clause, and I have a really comprehensive maternity leave policy. I really just started from what I thought was right to do for the people that believed in me.”
Barclay said companies should know their numbers when it comes to gender gaps and employment, so they can measure themselves against their competition to increase gender parity as much as possible. According to multiple studies, companies that have gender parity are more profitable than those that lack it.
“It pays off when you’re searching for talent at any level,” Barclay said. “If you have a reputation as a company being a welcoming place for everyone, that means you have a broader pool of potential talent from which to select. You can become a magnet for talent from all over the country and the globe.”
Barclay said developing diverse talent starts with the hiring process, with companies ensuring they have a broad pool of applicants. The next is making sure hiring managers have unconscious bias training. For companies looking to promote workers, it’s important to examine who is typically acting on opportunities.
“If you start to see patterns, it’s important to not just assume that you’re offering this and everyone has an equal shot,” Barclay said. “You need to look at who is acting on the opportunities you’re offering, and if you see patterns in that, get curious about why.”
Another important aspect of developing women leaders is that inclusiveness needs to happen at the very top of the company as well, Barclay said. She sees larger companies in Michigan being more open to learning about this topic as talent issues persist.
“We do know that leadership at the top makes all the difference in the world, because it sets the tone,” she said. “The top leaders at a company need to make a visible commitment and elevate the visibility of this work internally at their companies.”
The local focus on women and talent development has grown in recent years, as evidenced by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s Athena program, which focuses on providing information, access and connections to support women’s professional development in West Michigan. Athena originated in Lansing and has also operated locally in Grand Rapids for 31 years.
In 2018, about 80 people attended the Chamber’s Athena event; the most recent program sold out with 200 people in attendance, said Mel Trombley, director of leadership programs at the Chamber.
Athena members said the struggles women have faced in the workplace have evolved and the environment has somewhat improved, Trombley said. The program helps women (and men) across sectors connect and engage in issues that affect working women.
The Chamber has developed a scholarship program through Athena that supports women leaders in the community, and hosts events that provide professional skill sets and takeaways. In 2020, it is focusing on bringing in speakers from around the globe.
Overall, the professionals who spoke with MiBiz are optimistic for the future of women in the workplace, although they acknowledge there is a long way to go in some aspects, particularly for women of color.
“We see the gap and acknowledge it, and are being intentional about our selection of council members, our speakers, our women-owned businesses that we are utilizing to make sure we are using a variety of people,” Trombley said of Athena’s work specifically on issues that women of color face.
For some companies, the number of women of color in leadership positions is actually going backwards.
“With women of color, saying that we’re stalled in our progress is the most favorable way of saying it,” Barclay said.
In the creation of policies, it’s important to be aware of blind spots and recognize the different needs of various groups at work, Ehmann said. Having that flexibility is the bottom line for inclusion at Metric Structures.
“Transparency and flexibility are going to be cornerstones in making big changes,” she said. “Being open about those policy changes is important even if it’s not the industry standard.”