May 5-7, 2024
San Diego

Presented by ENR Magazine and 
Peckar & Abramson
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Women Seek Construction Industry's Critical Path

Despite numerous studies that show the business value of diverse management and professional teams, a gender-based wage gap still dogs women in the business world, Carey Smith, president of the federal business unit of Parsons Corp., told nearly 400 attendees at the Groundbreaking Women in Construction (GWIC) conference.

Please click here to link to the GWIC website to view the entire agenda and a short conference recap video.

Smith said the gender pay gap in construction—with women earning 93¢ for every male dollar—is narrower than the business average of 82¢ per dollar, “but it’s not where we need to be.”

Citing research by consultant McKinsey, she noted the “amazing statistic” that firms diversified by gender and ethnicity outperform peers by 15% and 35%, respectively. The event held May 2-3 in San Francisco was sponsored by ENR and construction law firm Peckar & Abramson.

“Having a female executive is the single most important way to drive organizational change,” said Laura Abrahamson, AECOM senior vice president and associate general counsel, adding that women make up 45% of the giant engineer-constructor’s staff and 43% of its leadership. Lisa Mingoia, corporate counsel at Skanska, said the diversity of the firm’s presentation team was a factor in its win of a key construction role on the multibillion-dollar renovation of LaGuardia Airport in New York City, set for completion in 2021.

Even so, presenters noted evidence of pay gaps in industry sectors. A 2015 study of 2,200 male and female structural engineers revealed a $52,000 gap at the principal level, despite faster advancement of women at lower levels, said Angie Sommer, an associate at ZFA Structural Engineers who co-chaired the survey project, which also looked at practitioner engagement. She said a more detailed study of pay gap results will get underway this year but noted the difficulty of finding competitive compensation data. “It’s always been a taboo subject,” she told attendees.

Pay-Equity Analysis

Priya Kapila, compensation practice leader at industry management consultant FMI, noted the need for “objective measures,” such as a company-wide pay equity analysis, and a look at issues related to “comparable worth” of job roles. She also said trends that show disparities resulting from differing gender-based negotiating approaches and levels of management aspiration.

Pointing to the Obama administration push to level compensation and other workplace gaps through executive order and regulation, Kellie McElhaney, a consultant and professor in the University of California, Berkeley business school who studies gender-based workplace trends, expected changes in the Trump government.

The president, in late March, revoked a 2014 order that required wage transparency for workers of federal contractors and barred forced arbitration clauses in sexual-harassment settlements. McElhaney said activist investors and even municipal governments are stepping up to help “de-bias” corporate processes.

Women spoke of barriers to their presence on the jobsite and stereotypes of limited career potential in those roles that disenchant next-generation prospects. “There’s the imposter syndrome, the sense that you don’t quite belong,” said Menzer Pehlivan, a CH2M geotechnical engineer. Journeyman ironworker Blue Coble pointed to the union’s new paid maternity leave benefit—the first in the building trades—as “huge” and key to promoting craft careers.

Gretchen Kinsella, one of the youngest project executives at DPR Construction, who recently gave birth to her daughter in the same hospital on which she led construction, urged women "to leverage each other's strengths."

Los Angeles-based leadership consultant Monique Tallone, who also is author of Leading Gracefully—A Woman's Guide to Confident, Authentic & Effecitve Leadership, advised attendees to "conquer the inner bully" that keeps them from pushing their perspectives within company hierarchies and building confidence. "If you can't confidently express yourself, no one will ever know," she said. "There's no down side to too much confidence. Do things that scare you the most."

Karen Fenaroli, a Kansas City-based executive recruiter to construction sector firms, added that the five "mistakes" women make in their career climb are "forgetting to raise your hand, making excuses for your time, thinking you can go it alone, ignoring opportunities to connect, and lacking belief in your abilities."

Once firms have a diverse workforce, the next challenge is to keep it. Inclusion strategies can help “recruiter-proof” a workplace, panelists speaking on the topic agreed. Mark DeVerges, senior manager for DHG Search, recommended not waiting until employees exit to interview them about goals and retention steps.

Denise Berger, assistant chief of engineers for operations at the Port Authority of NY and NJ, said it explored why women leave.

“For 44%, it had to do with their commitment to take care of family—not just child care but also elder care. For men, the reason was mostly to change careers or get another degree.” With a $32-billion, 10-year capital plan and staffers nearing retirement, the agency needs to “make sure we have telecommuting policies, flexible work arrangements, part-time agreements and learning resources,” she said.

Molly Weiss, human resources senior director at Mortenson Construction, said the firm knows that diversity drives innovation, so it became an imperative worthy of a $250,000 investment—one that includes an intensive education of senior leaders. She noted the push for management accountability. “What gets measured gets done,” said Weiss. Offering broader leadership opportunities is another approach. “I am the face of Turner Construction to the community in Northern California, and that face is a Latina,” said Elena Anaya, a diversity director.

But women moving up the ranks face perceptions of being seen as too "bossy," said Sharon Ferruccio of contractor Day & Zimmermann.

Supportive mentors help. “You need people in your front row,”  said the marketing vice president, who also counseled women to “make the tough decisions and be thick-skinned.” 

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