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Panel: Women Must Be Fierce Negotiators To Move Up Construction Ladder

August 25, 2020
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Finding the right employer and learning to sell yourself are key factors in narrowing the construction gender pay gap, a panel of industry compensation and recruiting experts told attendees of ENR’s Groundbreaking Women in Construction conference Aug. 25.

The construction gender gap is narrower than in other business sectors, where some studies calculate that women are paid about 82 cents for every dollar a man earns, noted Jean McGrory, senior director of total rewards for Mortenson Construction and session moderator. A study by the data analytics firm PayScale found that “when we control for job title, experience, industry, location … what happens then? You start to see that overall in the U.S., we make 99 cents for every dollar a man makes,” she said.

However, she noted that there are still far more men than women in higher-paying construction industry leadership positions. As those leaders retire, “how do women move up into those roles and start to make a bigger difference in the industry?” she asked.

Kim Baxter, vice president at National Roofing Partners, emphasized the need for more leadership education that helps women “sell ourselves” effectively when it comes to seeking raises or equal compensation. “Women are fixers, doers, we take care of problems. But when it comes to ourselves, we tend to put ourselves second or third,” she said. “I attended a leadership course where we were coached on how to have a voice about yourself and how to move forward as a female in the construction industry.”

Stephanie Kaufman, senior recruiter at recruiting firm DHG Search, emphasized finding a high-level mentor to advise on negotiating skill as one moves up the ranks. “Make sure you’re a fierce negotiator on the front end. It sets the tone for how you move through your career. Partner with someone to grow those strengths.”

Michael Headrick, vice president at PCL Construction, also encouraged women to speak up when they feel it’s time for increased compensation. “If you work for a company you trust, you’ll typically get an answer or investigation or determination of what that compensation should be,” he said. “You need to have a good reason why you’re asking for the change. Speak up!”

The ability to assert oneself, he added, is a skillset that companies like PCL want.

But speaking up effectively includes both preparation and the ability to advocate for a team, added Baxter. “You can bring in numbers, like sales [figures] … I’m big on promoting that you didn’t get there by yourself. Your staff helped you get there. Being a good leader shows your worth. Work hard and support your team and be someone everyone wants to work with every day. You can have your bullet points ready, but most of the time you shouldn’t need them … or else maybe you’re working for the wrong company. Sometimes you are just not working for the right boss. You need to find someone who’s going to support you,” she said.

She advised women leaders to not only take educational courses themselves, but to encourage their staff to do so as well. “I just finished a TEXO [Texas contractors association] leadership course for women … focused on how to sell yourself and take your team with you, not push people out of the way to get there,” she said.

Kaufman noted that sometimes women have to pick their battles and refine their expectations. Citing a past experience working for a large Midwest general contractor, she recalled “it was a bit of a challenge” recruiting women and people of color. “As a female going in, you have to take a look at the landscape. Don’t go in guns blazing. You’re not automatically going to change the world” just by being one of the first women in the company, she said. “In some companies, the culture just is not supportive of females or minorities to move up. Instead of being frustrated, I just realize I have to drive my own career. If I can’t do that here, I’ll find a company where I can.”

Headrick emphasized the value of partnering with or being mentored by a field superintendent. “[Superintendents] learn to negotiate every single day on everything they’re doing,” he said. Linking with superintendents “is a great way to figure out how to be an advocate for yourself but also have the skills to negotiate day in and day out.”

He added that negotiation can’t just be taught in a classroom. “You have to practice. I encourage everyone to practice.”

Monetary compensation isn’t the only factor, and shouldn’t be the first item of discussion when interviewing for a new job, said Kaufman. “Compensation really comes up at the very end when the company is ready to present an offer. It’s about a good cultural fit for the candidate and company.”

Baxter added that compensation isn’t always about money. She suggested that if a company’s budget doesn’t facilitate a raise or promotion, the employee could ask for an additional week of vacation, more sick days, or even an hour and a half for lunch in order to go to the gym.

Headrick advised interviewees that in addition to being prepared to sell themselves, they should “reverse the chairs.”

He said it's useful to be “sitting in the opposite chair. What questions are you expecting to hear? When I conduct interviews, I like to throw out some crazy questions to see how [candidates] think on their feet. They have to be prepared enough to come up with an answer. That’s the business we’re in. We have to fight fire drills frequently.”

 

 


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