Construction sector growth and staff shortages are opening career floodgates for women in craft, professional and executive roles, but stubborn issues in workplace cultures still hinder their advancement and their long-term commitment to industry-sector work, researchers and professionals shared at the Groundbreaking Women in Construction conference (GWIC) as they weighed solutions.
Romila Singh, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee business school professor, shared details with the nearly 700 attendees of the May 14-16 conference in San Francisco—presented by ENR and law firm Peckar & Abramson—of government-funded research she co-authored on why technical professionals depart the field that focused particularly on women.
Singh noted that while there was little difference in technical-skill confidence between those who left and those who remain, “women still encountered hurdles in terms of having to prove their competency over and over again.”
Women study respondents pointed to workplace “sabotage” and lack of training opportunities or promotion transparency, she said. “Their voices were not being heard,” added Singh. “You cannot fix any kind of issues in terms of gender equity without addressing the elephant in the room, which is the culture.”
Panelists discussing how to keep women engaged and leadership-ready urged attendees to communicate a willingness to take on new career challenges and to take credit for achievement.
“We just need to be a little more proud of ourselves and honest about what we did,” said Denise Berger, engineering operations chief for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.
Erin Slayton, HDR associate vice president, told attendees she was “willing to do whatever it takes to continue advancing my career. I cannot stress enough for you to tell people what it is that you want to do, or they will make assumptions for you.” But panelists also said it was key to make time for needed work-life balance, family-related or not.
A panel of women company owners and senior project executives shared insights on effective leadership and team empowerment.
"I'm still working on an over-reliance on my contracts and trying to think that everything is black and white," said Jessica Chen, project executive at Suffolk Construction. "Nothing is black and white. There is no such thing as perfect."
Joanna Slominski, a Mortenson Construction project executive in North Dakota, advised attendees that, as their roles evolve from management to team leadership, they need to be aware that they "can't do everything; saying yes can put [you] in a tough situation." She advised them to "say yes with the right people around you."
Click link below to see video of GWIC speakers and participants in action.
'Bring a Man Along'
A joint panel of male and female industry executives noted the importance of engaging more men to recruit and help retain skilled women.
"A women's leadership strategy is a baseline expectation of what great companies do nowadays," said Jeffery T. Halter, a leadership consultant and former diversity strategy manager at Coca-Cola. "You are actually at a competitive disadvantage if you don't have one. Engineers find problems and you fix them. Do you put the same rigor into the recruitment and advancement of women as you do in to the rest of your work? That's where we want to go with this."
Fluor Corp. has a global program that connects men and women to boost recruitment and advance women that now involves 20 company units, said Anna Farokhi, Fluor commissioning director. She said firms need to include diversity as a necessary component in executive succession planning.
Chuck Hebert, vice president at industry technology firm PlanGrid, which has a woman founder and CEO, noted its broad diversity efforts that include the “Bring A Man Along” program to women-focused events. "It allowed the conversation to open up that it was okay for a man to participate," he said. "Once you create that and you open that door, we found that a lot of men would actually participate, mostly to start just listening."
Added Hebert: “I have a nine-year-old daughter and don’t want her to have the same struggles and challenges because of gender."
Brian Cahill, president of Balfour Beatty's California operations, noted the new mandate in the UK, where its parent is located, for firms over 250 employees to report the company gender compensation gap. He said the firm's 27% male-female pay gap is on par with the UK construction-sector average, reflecting the traditional cluster of men in higher-level positions.
But, said Cahill, Balfour Beatty is committed to 50-50 gender parity in leadership by 2025. "We are going to be talent starved. We need every woman we can get to come into the business and grow them into the future leaders," he said.
While technology offers new career directions for women, Emily Tsitrian, PlanGrid director of consulting services, said the sector overall "hasn’t been progressive in terms of women in leadership roles.”
Discussion participants suggested that tech and construction can learn from each other, with women moving up the ranks in tech firms and in construction firm technology roles . Technology “needs to learn how to do real-world things,” said Jit Kee Chin, chief data officer at Suffolk Construction.
Roz Buick, vice president of Trimble, noted the firm’s recent experience in building its own project. “You’re supplying your own technology, so we saw the payoff,” she said, noting how after an employee accident, jobsite managers could immediately link to personnel records. “There are lots of examples of applications to workforce management,” she added.
Women of Color: Too Few Role Models
Women of color noted some additional obstacles in their push for visibility and advancement.
Tiffany Millner, a black architect and affiliate director for the ACE Mentor Program, said people of color make up less than 2% of architects.“A lot of our clients are really becoming more diversified and multicultural and as a business issue … we need to be able to respond … with the sensitivity and cultural competence they will be looking for,” she said.
"Sometimes I literally have to stand up and say something that I had said twice already to be heard," said Minneapolis-based architect Damaris Hollingsworth, vice president of Thor Design Plus, who also is black and was born in Brazil. "It's very painful to adjust to in the beginning. You have to be assertive."
California High Speed Rail Authority structural engineer Noopur Jain added: “Growing up in India, a woman as an engineer, wearing a hardhat with boots on the ground was not the norm.” She advised attendees to "create that awareness of different colors, backgrounds, cultures." noting that "what really helped me was standing strong with a high level of drive and not worrying about what people are saying or thinking about me."
Jacqueline Glover, president of a Washington, D.C project management consultant, urged all industry women to "intentionally reach out and connect with one another" across all demographics.
Industry veterans urged career-minded attendees to hang in and speak out.
Susan Rozakis, project executive at Google with four decades of industry experience, advised attendees to seek out mentors and sponsors, and not be deterred by setbacks. “We will all be better off for having a wide range of perspectives, not merely token representation,” she said.
Vicki O’Leary, a general organizer in the ironworkers’ union and 32-year industry veteran, touted its outreach effort to male union members to “teach women the tricks of the trade rather than assuming that because of gender, they will not be here long.” Even so, drywall finisher Ayesha Calloway said she has “rarely worked with another woman finisher on the job in 13 years” of her career as a craftworker.
O'Leary urged women architects, engineers and managers on jobsites to better support site tradeswomen. “There’s a divide between us,” she said. “We need a cultural shift and it’s going to take all of us collectively to make that difference.”
Ginger Evans, Chicago Dept. of Aviation commissioner and the executive who led construction of Denver's new airport in the 1990s, offered this advice: “You are going to stub your toe. You’re going to say something you regretted. But don’t start your answer by saying ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s an old habit we should give up. Just move on. Perseverance is the key.”
With additional reporting by Aileen Cho and Alisa Zevin