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Here's How Habitat For Humanity Is Changing The Game For Women In STEM

There are obvious gender disparities in STEM—especially in the construction industry. But Habitat For Humanity is proving ladies know how to work just as hard as the guys, and it's thanks to special programs like National Women Build Week.

It's true—construction careers, like most in STEM, are typically male-dominated. In fact, the Bureau Of Labor Statistics reported that women constituted only 9.1 percent of all positions in the construction field in 2016. Christine Panagopoulos is one of the ladies out there making her name in building, and she didn't even receive a degree in the field.

After going to college for education and teaching for years, she entered the construction field, launching a company with her bestie and building custom houses for the city of Fort Worth.

"When I first opened my company, there was a learning curve and a time where I had a lot of folks who didn't think we knew what we were doing," Panagopoulos tells MORE. "It was two women who had a construction company... Our houses were great designs, but with some contractors and vendors, we had to prove ourselves, and we did a good job with that."

And she didn't stop proving herself. After working for her company and as an inspector for the city of Fort Worth, she hopped on board with Habitat For Humanity as the Director of Construction for Trinity Habitat for Humanity in Fort Worth, Texas, where she's in charge of the logistics: planning alongside the development department, scheduling how each program is going to layout, matching up donors with projects and homeowners, and training volunteers and staff.

What's even cooler about Habitat For Humanity is that they're out to prove that it's okay—and totally important—for women to get involved. One such program they offer in an effort to get women out and building, National Women Build Week, is held the week leading up to Mother's Day, with more than 98,000 women from all 50 states having volunteered at the nine previous National Women Build Week events.

This year alone, 300 communities in 49 states participated in National Women Build Week—how impressive is that? And beyond their single week of women-focused building, they've seen an increase in women wanting to get involved in the construction process in the first place.

"Initially, our core volunteers were always older, retired gentlemen. They may have been engineers. They may have been architects. They may have been leaders in their field. And that was our core volunteer set," Panagopoulos explains. "But in our last six or seven years... that has changed. We have a lot of husband and wife teams that come through the training program. We have a ton of gals who are still working, but want to learn more about construction and want to learn more about how to do it the Habitat way. Each and every time we're offering the class, we may have up to 60 percent female now when the first couple of years we offered the class, we didn't have a single gal go through it."

And it's all come through encouragement and a belief that women can do this. For Panagopoulos, a career in construction, a STEM-related field, was never totally off her radar because she was always interested in building and creating.

"My dad always encouraged me to try new things, so he never made it to where my brothers had this type of a hobby and I had to have another type of a hobby," Panagopoulos tells MORE. "He always encouraged me being creative and do different things, and that's just how I've carried on through my whole life. I feel like he set the foundation that it was okay to do those kinds of things."

It may not always be that easy to see that women are proving their worth in the world of construction, but it's all about taking a challenge and being confident in yourself—no matter the gender disproportion. It's probably easier said than done, of course, but taking baby steps (yes, like doing that DIY project at home!) or taking some time to get your hands dirty is the best way for women to get their start.

"I encourage the women out there all the time to try new things and to go beyond what they think they can handle and learn something new," Panagopoulos says.

Sure, it might be intimidating. But nothing is more girl boss than taking on a challenge and standing up to gender disparity—and we're all on board with that.

Maggie Dickman

Maggie is a digital apprentice at Meredith Corporation. When she's not writing trending stories, you'll find her full on blasting One Direction, scanning through her favorite fashion blogs or hitting up any and every concert that passes through her home base of Des Moines.

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