As vice president and district manager for PCL’s California Buildings group, Cathy Orquiola is responsible for business operations and overall performance in the nearly $1-billion district, consisting of the firm’s Glendale, Orange County and San Diego offices. She is the first female vice president at PCL.

Projects that PCL’s California Buildings is delivering under Orquiola’s watch include $650 million in student housing at the University of California, Los Angeles, the $220-million Triton Pavilion project at the University of California, San Diego, the $1.6-billion  Midfield Satellite Concourse North at Los Angeles International Airport (as part of a 50-50 joint venture), the $230-million International Arrivals facility at San Diego International Airport, and the $1-billion LAX Consolidated Rent-A-Car (ConRAC) facility.

Why construction? What attracted you to the industry?

I always loved math and science. I came from an underrepresented family, and between athletics and academics, I got a full-ride scholarship for civil engineering. My first internship was in construction, and I just got bit by the bug.

How does your background as a former professional athlete contribute to your current role?

I played indoor volleyball in college. After I got out of school and was working, I played two-man beach volleyball and competed. I just continued to juggle both, and the great thing about construction is that it starts early in the morning and, especially early in your career, you tend to be off early in the afternoon, so [I was able to] drive to the sand courts and play. For the next 12 years, I played competitive sand volleyball.

Has that offered any advantages in construction, still primarily a man’s profession?

Absolutely. I had to be able to juggle a heavy academic load while in season, traveling for tournaments, and still be an excellent athlete. You learn how to prioritize, you learn grit, you learn leadership. You learn every skill you need to translate into a successful professional leader. I am a huge fan of athletics—especially for women.

What continues to surprise you about gender issues in the construction industry?

I have to say 2018 was an incredibly formative year for me, and it sounds silly to say that—as advanced as I am in my career—but I became so much more aware of some of the barriers within the industry for women.

One thing I’m working on in California Buildings is that it’s not just about figuring out how to give women the tools to be successful in a man’s world, but it’s also about empowering men with similar tools to be able to recognize what true potential looks like in a woman—because it’s not the same potential they saw looking in the mirror when they were coming up through the ranks.

It’s a little bit different and it has different attributes. So being able to recognize that so you can champion them, that’s a shift, and we have to empower our male supervisors with the tools and skills to do that.

Why does it seem to take this industry longer than others to promote women into leadership roles?

There are a lot of obvious barriers—the early mornings, and you have to be creative if you have a family and have to work out the childcare scenario and things along those lines. I look at engineering, construction and architecture, and they all seem to struggle [with]  advancing women. I don’t think it’s one thing; it’s several things that go together.

But that’s why we’re really focused on the two-fold approach: not only giving women the tools to have the grit and the confidence and the agility and the effectiveness in a male-dominated space, but also, let’s help these guys start seeing something that looks a little different than they’re used to.

It is a challenge, and I’m hoping we’ve found the secret sauce to marry the two together, because I think we’ve all just been focused on lifting women, and if we don’t empower men with the tools to see what true potential looks like—and most of these women in junior positions have male supervisors—how do we get them elevated if men aren’t trained on what potential looks like in someone that doesn’t look like them?

How is PCL walking the talk about gender equity and recruiting diverse team members?

It’s interesting that you asked that. I just did a white paper on advancing women in construction, and there are several things we are doing right here in California Buildings—and this was one of your first questions: We are recruiting athletes. We are absolutely still recruiting the traditional civil engineer or construction management graduate, but we’re also now targeting athletes. We’re looking at both male and female athletes, but we’re focusing in on female athletes.

We are working to empower both. We’ve created a group called Women of CAB [Women of California Building]; it’s a group focused on giving women confidence to have hard conversations, giving women grit, teaching leadership, teaching how to deal with very challenging situations in a confident and efficient manner. And some of those conversations are pretty direct and pretty bold, and they can be hard conversations. But I think our group is really starting to advance because of those conversations and that training ground.

What about other minority groups?

It’s very similar. It started as Women of CAB, and then we recognized: one, you can’t have a Women of CAB if you don’t have their male supervisors, and two, how do we advance all of our minorities and focus on an inclusive environment? It’s kind of just becoming the fabric of our DNA; it’s how we are doing business.

Are there things PCL or other firms are doing to recruit specific groups—in addition to athletes?

We see that investing in high school and middle school students—that’s where we need to open girls’ (and minorities’) minds to math and science—that this can be fun, and [we tell them] you can fit in this environment.

I had the opportunity to do a virtual construction presentation to a group of fourth graders just last year, and it was so awesome to see these little girls go, “Well, I’ve never thought about construction,” and then you could see by the end of the presentation with all their questions that they started to get bitten by the bug. It was just exciting to see that metamorphosis start to happen.

What advice would you give young women considering careers in construction today?

Construction is a dynamic, fun, incredibly rewarding industry. If you bring your authentic self to every table and every room, you can have tremendous success.