Photo by Steve Hill for ENR
Gilbane project executive Pamela Ward O'Malley, a 30-year industry veteran (left), shares tips with women attendees on career advancement.
Photo by Steve Hill for ENR
CEOs Peter Davoren of Turner Construction, Tony Mann of subcontractor E-J Electric and Bruce Fowle of architect FXFowle (from right) urged women to "stretch" into new company roles but acknowledged firm "blockers" who impede culture change.

Women at all levels of construction who are looking to climb the corporate ladder shared strategies at an ENR conference on how to maximize opportunities and avoid familar obstacles.

At the "Groundbreaking Women in Construction" event held in New York City on May 14-15, top industry executives, both female and male, urged the more than 350 women attendees to "stretch themselves" but acknowledged the challenge of overcoming stereotypes and cultural roadblocks.

"At first, I looked to emulate men, but I really came into my own when I realized I'm never going to be them," said Kiran K. Gill, the 33-year-old president and CEO of PARS Environmental Inc., a consulting firm that, in a decade, she has grown to $10 million in revenue and 60 employees from $500,000 in revenue and six employees. "What matters is what I bring to the table."

Pamela Ward O'Malley, a project executive and health-care leader at Gilbane Building Co. and a 30-year industry veteran, said that women feel pressure to set the bar high. "I was raised in a generation of men, and it was all about working hard. Women feel we're not qualified because we haven't done [something] before."

O'Malley noted a report by management consultant McKinsey that shows men are promoted based on their potential, while women move up based on their achievement.

Maintaining a work-life balance is more of a challenge for women than for men, the leaders panel said. Denise Pease, New York City regional administrator of the U.S. General Services Admininistration, acknowledged that, for her, it is an 80-20 split toward the work side.

"I have to be on 24-7," added Gill. "It's not an option. I'm still struggling with my work-life balance."

Despite the explosion of women in construction-industry disciplines, their journey into key decision-making roles has been slower. "We have come a long way, but we haven't seen the end game yet," said Pease.

Speakers encouraged attendees to build experience through board service in their own organizations and in outside entities, including non-profits.

Panel moderator Heather Foust-Cummings, a vice president of womens' advocacy group Catalyst Inc., said serving as a director gives women the chance to build experience in "negotiating on other people's behalf—that's even better than for yourself."

Lillian C. Borrone, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, said her appointment to the board of Horizon Healthcare Plan Holding Co. Inc. more than a decade ago "made a difference," noting the later addition of more women directors at the health-care insurer and its subsidiaries.

Borrone said that, as a corporate director, "you have fiduciary responsibility in your hand."

Diane Creel, a former CEO of two industry companies and a member of both public and private corporate boards, said companies "look for marketing, financial and operations capabilities" in potential directors. "See where you can contribute to the culture," she counseled.

Creel said public-service board experience "was required of my employees."

Carole Bionda, vice president of California contractor Nova Group Inc., added that, in particular, non-profit board service can boaden womens' experience in building and expanding organizations and understanding financial statements.

"Board service gives you a new perspective," Bionda said.

While Cummings said research indicates that corporate boards may look less kindly on candidates with service for non-profit organizations, Creel suggested such experience will help women "get to know people who are connected. It's a stepping-stone."

Gail Grimmett, a Delta Air Lines senior vice president and its highest-ranking executive in New York City who supervised hub expansions at both LaGuardia and JFK airports, shared that her career success rested on three foundations: having confidence and taking risks, finding a mentor, and seeking that next "breakout role."