As a 24-year-old engineer at PC Construction in 2015, Kaitlyn Evarts was transferred to a new region—away from friends and family—as part of the Vermont-based contractor’s leadership development rotation. She was paired with one of the two project managers on the job and found herself in a project culture that “embraced locker-room talk.” She accepted this at first as “how it was” in construction. “I wanted to prove myself, whatever it took,” she says. She thought she needed to “toughen up.”
But as time went on, her ability to brush it off wore away. “My boss began to make comments directed specifically towards me. Then he began touching me—random bear hugs as he laughed, or he’d ruffle my hair—even when I asked him not to. I felt helpless.” Evarts told herself that if she worked harder, he would respect her enough to stop, but he didn’t. “It wasn’t one horrific incident. It was chronic disrespect that degraded my self-confidence and self-worth, both at work and at home,” she says.
The only people who knew were her co-workers on the project, who were “oblivious,” she says. Even her boyfriend (now husband) had no idea what was happening because Evarts was afraid to tell him. She actively looked at leaving the company. Finally, she opened up to two female co-workers. “After talking to them, I realized that what I had been putting up with for about a year was not normal, and it wasn’t right,” Evarts says. She decided her only option was to report the behavior “to not only improve my situation, but to try and prevent what happened to me from happening to someone else.”
Within one hour of submitting a letter to PC’s human resources director, “I had a call from her,” Evarts says. The director explained she was going to fly down later that afternoon on the first flight she could get. The director interviewed the manager who had harassed Evarts as well as three other employees on the project. At the end of the interviews, the manager was terminated.
Mara Rivera, chief administrative officer for the $600-million-a-year, employee-owned contractor, told ENR in a recent interview: “We commend Kaitlyn for speaking up and sharing her story. We hope it empowers others to do the same. PC Construction does not tolerate any form of harassment or discrimination. We always strive to do the right thing for our employees.”
After the dismissal, it was “very awkward” to go back to the site, Evarts says. Co-workers who had been friendly with the manager were cold and not cooperative with Evarts. “I’d often get left out of things or bypassed, both personally and professionally,” she says. After a few weeks she addressed it head on, talking directly to a co-worker and telling him: “You may not agree with what I did, but we have a job to do here, so let’s be civil.” After that, working relationships improved.
Rumors about the incident spread company-wide. “Everyone seemed to know almost immediately,” Evarts says. “Almost all the responses I got were positive, which was reassuring, because I felt a lot of guilt. There were a few, however, who questioned my story, saying that I made everything up.” Moving on to a new project six months later, Evarts realized that her first experience was not the norm or representative of a company-wide culture. Still, “It was so frustrating to start out feeling like I had to prove my value over the rumors. As a woman, you always need to work harder to prove yourself.”
Not long after, PC Construction launched a Women in Construction network that twice a year brings together women from up and down the East Coast. After several retreats were held, Evarts suggested that they “talk about the elephant in the room—sexual harassment.” Attendees shared comments or experiences anonymously for discussion.
Now a senior project engineer and employee owner, Evarts added her own experience to the mix: “It was really hard to share in front of 40 people, but it was empowering to help educate the group. My hope is that by sharing my story, other women will feel better able to stand up for themselves to make sure they are treated with respect.”