03/07/2014 05:58 pm ET Updated May 07, 2014

Kankwanzi's Story: Why We Need More Women in Infrastructure and Building

"They told me, 'No woman climbs. No woman builds.' That women can't do a lot of things."

These are the types of observations that followed Anne Marie Nyiranshimiyimana wherever she went when she first began working with us on the Ministry of Health's district hospital construction in Butaro, a northern province in Rwanda in 2009. She was the first female mason on the project site and was training alongside her male colleagues in craft innovation of local volcanic rock as building material, a process invented and unique to Butaro. Anne Marie, featured in our 'Beyond the Building' series, has since become known regionally for her trade, working with us as a lead mason on the subsequent construction of doctors' housing nearby the hospital, encouraging her female peers to pursue skilled masonry, and becoming accomplished enough to ensure her children's education, buy health insurance for her family, and put a brand new roof on their home. She has earned the nickname Kankwanzi, a famous Rwandan radio show character, who is the only female working construction in her fictional community, but an expert nonetheless and revered for her intelligence and quick wit.

This year's International Women's Day theme, "Inspiring Change," speaks to precisely what Anne Marie has done throughout her community in Butaro. Working with her over the past five years has reminded us of the role we all share in providing opportunities for women's economic empowerment. This is especially the case in high-skilled trades like architecture and engineering, where women like Anne Marie have much to contribute but have been unrepresented in these fields to date.

Worldwide, "women are more likely to work in temporary and part-time jobs, are less likely to be promoted, and concentrate in occupations and sectors with lower barriers to entry ." Women are also less likely to be financially independent and comprise the majority of the world's poor, despite in some regions accounting for as much as 90 percent of food production.

But there is immense opportunity to close these gaps through job training and smart infrastructure development. An estimated $93 billion must be spent in sub-Saharan Africa to meet the infrastructure needs identified by the Millennium Development Goals, an enormous challenge that will require high-skilled human capacity. Increasing the number of women in fields like applied building technology, craft development, architecture, engineering, and construction management to fill this need is a major opportunity that should not be passed over. How can we provide opportunities for more women to enter these fields?
  • Provide job training in trades like masonry during construction so women don't have to take time out from wage earning or their families to gain new skills
  • Create incentives for women to explore advanced degrees in applied technology, architecture, and engineering, such as those encouraged in Rwanda at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology
  • Address social constructs against women in science and technology from within and encourage a level of agency for women to pursue jobs in these fields

Investing in more training and providing opportunities for women's economic empowerment has immense potential for ripple effects across societies in developing economies. On March 8th, as we call attention to the vast inequalities articulated above, we should learn from the experiences and ambition of women like Anne Marie in carving out pathways that enable and support more women to learn marketable, high-in-demand job skills and therefore long-term security.

See Anne Marie tell her amazing story.

Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks are co-founders of MASS Design Group, a nonprofit architecture firm devoted to improving lives through beautiful and impactful buildings. Under Michael and Alan's leadership, MASS has been named finalists for the TED Prize, The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and Buckminster Fuller Challenge, and received the World Architecture News Burro Happold Award, The Architectural League of New York: Emerging Voices Award, Healthcare Design Changemaker Award, the Curry Stone Design Prize, and Contract Magazine 'Designer of the Year', among others.