On the first day of her first job at Perini Corp.—now Tutor Perini—in the 1970s, a male worker approached Karen Arpino-Shaffer's boss and asked, "What the hell is she doing here?"
"In those days, people said what they felt," Arpino-Shaffer, 54, says. Workers now are "trained not to say it, but as a woman, you can still feel" when you are not wanted, she adds. It took a few false starts for things to change, but she and the man eventually became good friends.
Arpino-Shaffer worked her way up to become the first female superintendent at Perini, working on the $70-million Harvard Square Subway Station in Boston. While Arpino-Shaffer, who has a degree in architecture, planned to return to design, she quickly fell in love with the building side of the industry, particularly public transportation, at Perini. When the Harvard Square project ended, she took a job with Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).
At MBTA, Arpino-Shaffer met Howard Hayward, a mentor whom she credits as playing a critical role in her success. At the time, Hayward was the only black project manager and Arpino-Shaffer was the only female resident engineer working for the MBTA. She believes it was no accident the two were paired together and counts it as a reason why she made it in the public sector. She went on to manage MBTA's $500-million annual capital program.
More than 30 years later, Arpino-Shaffer has come a long way from having to face comments like the one made that day at Perini.
Today, she is leading the $1.9-billion Green Line Extension (GLX) project in Boston for Gilbane Building Co., which is providing program and construction management on the project along with HDR Engineering Inc. In addition to the joint-venture work, Arpino-Shaffer is Gilbane's Transportation Center of Excellence leader, helping the firm earn national recognition for transportation work.
Soft-spoken but no pushover, Arpino-Shaffer attends about 12 to 15 meetings a week, including reviewing field-office progress reports, approving project invoices and finding ways to cut costs.
When Arpino-Shaffer talks, her colleagues listen and her ideas are implemented. She says that when she joined Gilbane two and a half years ago, the company made her feel respected. Before her positive experience with Gilbane, she says, "I had forgotten all these things that should be but aren't."
Trying to run a national transportation practice while being 100% committed to the GLX project seems daunting enough, but try balancing that with a husband, six kids and two dogs. Somehow, Arpino-Shaffer has always made it work and has never missed an important event in either her personal or professional life, she says.
To juggle her responsibilities, she leaves work when her family needs her and, to make up the time, stays late on other days.
Arpino-Shaffer says the industry needs to "see beyond gender and race and understand that a different voice brings a different idea." She adds, "The industry tends to use the excuse 'Well, there aren't many women like you.' But Gilbane found me. [Women like me] do exist."