The Sustainability of Women

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Tompkins Weekly 6-12-19

By Jean E. Rightmire

Sustainability has been defined as “the process of people maintaining change in a balanced environment, in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.”

Sustainability really begins with people. Habitat for Humanity of Tompkins and Cortland Counties (TCHFH) works with individuals, funders, companies and, organizations to help build a sustainability culture. We work to ensure there is sustainable growth. We help the communities we serve have a fundamental shift in vision and embrace the principles of sustainability in a range of housing operations.

Through leadership development, fellowship, team-building, and coaching, we build a collaborative environment equipped with necessary sustainability-related tools and processes to get the job done by building and rehabilitating homes for low-moderate income families. We support a sustainable culture, one with an empowered workforce, a deep sense of commitment, a strong sense of place, and a desire to succeed.

Photo by Shannon MacCarrick

TCHFH has had an annual ‘Women Build’ event for nearly a decade. This brings women from all backgrounds and skill levels to work together to build walls, roof trusses, increase their construction skills and provide support for each other. This year, women from across the county came together on May 10 at Bethel Grove to build community and sustainability in an empowering environment.

Over 100 women attended Women Build, not including the 10-12 women supervisors/contractors that were also there to teach and train. We had everyone from Cornell students to retirees. Employees from banks (AFCU, CFCU, Tompkins Trust, Tioga Savings bank), eCornell, GiveGab, and more. Mother-daughter teams, loads of new volunteers, and women who have participated for all nine years — including two of our current Habitat homeowners who joined us this year.

We offered power tool training (one-on-one) to every volunteer who wanted it and, collectively, built all the interior and exterior wall panels for one of our three new homes at 1932 Slaterville Road in the town of Dryden. This event builds community.

Based on the Women Build model, in 2018 TCHFH began our “Building Community” initiative. Working with nonprofit partners, funders, businesses, unions, contractors, and community members to teach women/girls, youth, and marginalized populations the construction trades, thus building sustainability at all levels. Through ongoing workshops and real-life experiences by working on the three home build at Slaterville Road, we are providing the avenue for long term prosperity.

Education and economic empowerment of women have significant potential to reduce poverty. The benefits of education, any education, pass on to the next generation — mothers who have had an education are more than twice as likely to send their own children to school or advanced education opportunities as mothers with little or no education. According to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, on average, women reinvest up to 90 percent of their incomes back into their own households, compared to 30-40 percent by men. 

The construction industry is showing job growth after several years of decline. Construction and extraction occupations are predicted to grow by 21.4 percent between 2012 and 2022, more than twice the rate of job growth predicted across all occupations (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). Women have traditionally been left out of these trades, good wages, and consistent work. Construction occupations offer the potential of employment with family-sustaining wages without the need for a college education.

Although many women work in construction, women’s share of construction jobs has been stuck at less than four percent for more than 40 years. Today women range from less than one percent of brick masons and roofers to a high of 5.7 percent of construction painters (U.S. Department of Labor 2014). 

On the financial front, males in Tompkins County have an average income that is 1.02 times higher than the average income of females, which is $54,603 (m) vs $53,705 (w). The income inequality of Tompkins County (measured using the Gini index) is 0.511 which is higher than the national average. By training women/girls, as well as the other populations mentioned above, in the construction trades, TCHFH provides real-world experience and a pipeline to a sustainable fiscal future. At its core, this is sustainable, community development.

We would be remiss if we did not send out a big thank you to Bethel Grove Church. For our recent Women Build, it shared its parking lot with us so graciously, on short notice, and it was the perfect location. TCHFH can also let women know that if they missed the event, we have a Women Build workday at 1932 Slaterville Road on June 15 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and will also be offering more training sessions for women this year. For more information on the next Women Build or to get involved with the Building Community Initiative, please email. or follow us on social media,

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