Women have made great strides in pursuing careers and leadership roles in construction, but more can be done to boost numbers, to make sure women have even footing with male colleagues and, particularly, to fight the industry’s racial and gender biases, said presenters at the Groundbreaking Women in Construction conference.

The virtual event, held Aug. 24-27, drew more than 1,000 registrants. It is a record for the industry talent management conference, which began in 2003 and is organized by ENR with construction law firm Peckar & Abramson.

This year’s program delved deeply into race and gender. Six Black women construction executives, led by Jennifer Todd, president and owner of LMS General Contractors Inc., discussed the difficulties of being a Black woman in construction and how they, and others, can overcome the obstacles.

Sharon Coleman, owner and president of Coleman Construction Inc., recounted how on one job, her company was owed for six months of work. She learned from her crew that a project manager told them the company was not getting paid because the owner was afraid Coleman would take the money and “go shopping with it.”

Cheryl McKissack Daniel, president and CEO of McKissack, recounted how  her company beat out several large firms to be a prime contractor on one job. But before McKissack was awarded the contract, the financial criteria were changed, seemingly without reason, and it lost the job.

Rather than be defeated by widespread racism, Daniel and others took matters into their own hands.  Stephanie Burns, Turner Construction Co. vice president and head of community and citizenship NYC, said, “I knew that diversity was something that I needed to help this company with.” Burns, who has worked for Turner for more than 24 years, said she was used to being the “only black bean in a bowl of rice.” She added, “And most of the time I was the only female in the room.”

Burns explained that it’s her task, and the task of other women and Black women, to speak up when diversity falls short. “I think it is everyone’s job to be that courageous, to make sure to point out … a lack of diversity in any space that you’re in—it can be very challenging,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what position you’re in, you have a voice, and you have to utilize that voice.”

What companies do after someone speaks up is crucial, Todd said. “It doesn’t matter what the perfectly crafted PR statement says about Black Lives Matter. It’s about showing that Black Lives Matter through the work that they do and the efforts that they make,” she said.

Daniel said, “A lot of times, because there is a women designation, there’s a Black designation, there’s a Black women designation … we think we’re pitted against one another. But we’re really in this boat together. And together, we need to demand a larger share of the pie.”

Examples of gender bias affecting construction-sector women were outlined by workplace trends researchers Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for Workplace Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law, and Rachel W. Dempsey, an employment attorney at Outten & Golden LLP in San Francisco. They co-authored “What Works for Women at Work,” a book  referred to as a “how-to primer for ambitious women.”

Bias Research

Noting research that includes studies of trends affecting craft women, engineers and architects, Dempsey pointed to the  evident “prove it again” bias. She said that among engineers whom the two researchers studied, 35% of white men said they were asked to justify themselves more than once, but 61% of women and 68% of engineers of color reported that outcome. Williams also said that in a study of 111 architects, 50% of women said others took credit for their ideas in meetings, while only 31% of men reported this issue.

Dempsey said the “prove it again” divergence comes from a “perceived lack of fit between women and the professional roles they’re in,” and from the assumption that a man’s achievement is based on skill, while for a woman, it is due to “luck.”

Williams observed that such bias in an employer’s “basic business systems” can be a roadblock to women’s career growth. Williams pointed to online sources of “bias interruptors” women can tap to ensure equity in hiring, assignments, performance reviews and meetings.

Williams and Dempsey said the pandemic could exacerbate gender bias issues for women, citing the challenges of longer work days and uncertain child-care arrangements. “Work assumes child-care infrastructure we don’t have now,” said Williams, who encourages women to develop “a sharing arrangement” within a family.

Williams also urged attendees to use the pandemic as a catalyst for workplace change. “My message to industry employees is to treat yourself as a renewable, sustainable resource,” she said. Williams added that the pandemic “could be an inflexion point for good, rather than driving women back three decades.” She said, “Help your employer invent the next generation of work arrangement. Ask for what you want but don’t wait until you’re furious.”

Amy Lewis, a construction project manager and Ph.D. candidate at Oklahoma State University, shared her recent research on gender bias in construction degree programs. She said that research demonstrates that such bias is a key factor in why women don’t pursue construction degree programs or choose not to enter the industry after graduation.

Lewis’ study focused on 111 women currently enrolled in or recently graduated from university construction programs. She said 87% reported at least one gender bias incident in the previous year. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents reported the experience of “having to work harder than male students to be taken seriously,” and 66% said they were “made to feel” that their gender would be a roadblock to a successful industry career. Lewis is continuing the research.

Diversity Priority

Conference attendees also heard from  Target Corp. construction program leaders, who said they are using Target’s size, scale and resources to advance social justice and racial equity inside and outside of the company. “We don’t have all the answers nor have we asked all the right questions,” said Amber Koehler, Target’s senior director of construction. “What we do know is that we are in this together and that doing better is a priority.”

Stephen Makredes, Target vice president of construction, set the diversity drive against a backdrop of the company’s $7-billion program—engaging more than 500 architectural and engineering consultants—to “modernize every aspect of its business.” To build more diverse teams, Target and other retailers supported forming ConstructReach, a workforce development company, to create opportunities through construction, emphasizing women and under-represented groups, he added. The effort uses Target jobsites to introduce students, parents and school counselors to the industry.