May 5-7, 2024
San Diego

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Women in Construction Get Empowered to Succeed

Hundreds of current and future women leaders share strategies for workplace change at ENR conference

Even with pay disparities, real and perceived biases and other workplace barriers still faced in construction, female executives, professionals and craft workers have become a recognized force in the industry and are empowering themselves and others to propel needed change. At least 375 women attendees from the ranks of owners, contractors, engineers and vendors shared strategies last month in San Francisco to raise women’s career profiles and change attitudes.

“Never settle until you find your passion,” engineer-entrepreneur Debbie Sterling told attendees quoting technology-sector legend Steve Jobs, in an address on June 20 at the “Groundbreaking Women in Construction” (GWIC) conference, sponsored by ENR and construction law firm Peckar & Abramson.

She is the 20-something founder and CEO of Goldieblox Inc., a fast-growing company built around a female builder toy character who inspires young girls to hone spatial skills and break stereotypes, from toy-store “pink aisles” to who studies engineering.

Innovators Don't "Fit in"

Since launching Goldieblox in 2012, Sterling said the company has sold 1 million products in some 6,000 U.S. stores. Goldiblox will soon launch its second app to teach fundamental coding concepts to girls and announced a deal with Random House for its first children’s books based on the Goldieblox character, who boys also think is “cool,” Sterling said. She urged attendees to break out of the box.

“I found myself trying to fit into the establishment, but I was always the oddball,” Sterling said. “I know now my perspective was valid because not fitting in is the definition of innovation.”

A leading researcher and three female industry CEOs emphasized how women in senior corporate roles can boost the bottom line. Noting his recent Harvard Business Review study of 22,000 global firms, Marcus Noland, director of studies and executive vice president of Washington, D.C.-based Peterson Institute for International Economics, said that, among profitable companies, “going from having no women in leadership to 30% translates to a 1% hike in net margins—a big number.”

Nataline Lomedico, the second woman CEO of Los Angeles contractor Giroux Glass in the past three decades, said the firm has grown “from a small glazing company focusing on service work to one of the nation’s top-20 glazing companies.”

Tracy Young, founder and CEO of booming construction collaboration firm PlanGrid, added, "I’m a construction engineer. I’m wired to look at complex problems and break them down into smaller, more manageable problems that are easier to solve. I’ve taken the approaches that worked for me in construction and used them to build PlanGrid and our culture. If we believe that intelligence and hard work are equally distributed across genders, races and cultures [and] if an entire industry favors one or two specific types of people, then we have a massive problem.”

Angela O'Byrne, president of New Orleans-based global design-build firm Perez advises women professionals to "keep doing a great job. Actions speak louder than words." She adds that "it's easier to be a change agent from the inside, than as an outsider. Find a work around and quietly implement diversity within the sphere you control, no matter how small the sphere. It's our job to be the role models. We must stand for what we believe in and our companies will be more successful, as a result."

Noland and the CEOs advocated gender-neutral leave policies for childbirth and removal of subjective recruiting buzz-words, such as “ninja.”

Building Networks and Gaining Respect

A growing career tool for women in construction is a women’s network in a woman employee's workplace or close.

Leyla Hadayat, senior vice president of engineer Kimley-Horn, said, “Our president and our chairman were 100% behind” its formation. “We report to the board about female retention rates.”

Greer Gallagher, vice president of interiors for Holder Construction Co., said she was exposed to the idea of a women’s network through involvement in the group Commercial Real Estate Women. She approached Chairman Tommy Holder with the idea, and there was “immediate buy-in and excitement about what it could mean, especially in retention of our talented women,” she said. “It probably helps that he’s got two daughters entering the work force themselves!”

Kristi Singleton, business-unit director at POWER Engineers, said the Boise firm’s network developed to address the perception that women’s careers hit a plateau. It was a “hard sell,” but, after 11 months, the network has 260 members, including 20% men, said Singleton, now POWER’s highest-ranked woman. Rama Ekkad, Turner Construction senior project manager, said its local network has thrived for 10 years and involves industry peers and clients.

“If women build stronger connections within the company and have access to other women who are like them. we think it will help reduce departures at the senior project manager level," Gallagher said.

Reverse mentoring is another strategy for women to build their workplace impact by sharing technology and other skills with company veterans in a mutually beneficial relationship. Kim Holland, a vice president at engineer RS&H, said her reverse mentoring extends to the firm’s CEO and to clients. “We saw technology ideas that would work for them,” she said. AnnMarie Jennette, a project manager for Suffolk Construction, added, “On projects, you’re fighting your age and level of experience, but use your strengths” to gain allies."

Women executives discussing the “psychology of earning respect” pointed to the need to develop self-confidence and solid self-esteem.

It may seem easier said than done, but according to Eileen McCarthy, project manager at Structure Tone, it’s achievable. “You do your job, you’re confident,” she said. McCarthy recalled a time when a male coworker was reluctant when he found out that a woman was leading the show.

By the end, McCarthy had won him over because of her ability to clearly communicate expectations to her team. “if you make a mistake, fess up,” and ask your team for suggestions, she said. “I think it helps you lead because it’s more collaborative.”

Building self-confidence also allows you to stand up for yourself. “You teach people how to treat you,” said Emily Cohen, director of government relations at United Contractors,a Bay area-based group of 450 union construction firms. “And, the way you do that is in your reaction to any of their [BS].” She said that standing firmly instead of reacting or indulging in your coworker’s unwanted behavior helps send a strong message.

“At some time in your career, you have to get to the point where [these are] almost unshakeable,” said Dara Hendrix, FTI Consulting senior director.

Unorthodox and Non-Traditional

Documentarian Lorien Barlow—now producing “Hard-Hatted Woman,” the first full-length film on women in crafts—credited female project managers, superintendents and others who “unlocked the doors and gave me access to film on site.” 

She hopes that by 2020, 20% of the national construction workforce will be comprised of women.  Today, less than 3% are. “This movement has needed a megaphone and I want very much for this film to be a part of that,” said Barlow, who is seeking financial support from industry to finish production of the film. “It speaks for women in nontraditional roles everywhere.”

When she asked audience members to stand if they had ever been the only woman on a jobsite, nearly all the attendees rose from their seats.

One veteran tradeswoman, an ironworker with 31 years of experience, said “things are changing, but it’s slow. Your video is awesome. It just encompasses who we are. And, we do love our jobs.”

Women also related how unorthodox and committed approaches work to snare opportunities. Maria Ayerdi-Kaplan, who stepped down in April as executive director of San Francisco’s $4.5-billion Transbay multimodal transportation network, noted a direct overture to former Mayor Willie Brown (D) two decades ago that led to the job.

“Never be afraid to knock on those doors,” she said. “You’ll always encounter naysayers that [say] you’re a woman or too young. Just push on.”

Carla Christofferson, who was a former law firm partner with no construction experience when she was named as general counsel for design giant AECOM in early 2015 after its surprising acquisition of another giant URS Corp., said CEO Michael Burke realized the “competitive advantage” of diversity.

She urged attendees to help their employers to improve corporate cultures. “If you’re losing women, it’s the first sign of problems with your culture,” she said.

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