Women in the construction sector are anxious to tackle the challenges of the industry’s post-pandemic recovery—leading forays into major new growth markets and launching creative approaches to current workplace transitions and the still nagging problem of employee and business diversity.
Impacts of workplace change brought on by the pandemic were a key topic for the more than 700 industry attendees at the Groundbreaking Women in Construction conference, sponsored by ENR and construction law firm Peckar & Abramson and held live in San Francisco, May 11-12.
Andra Kidd, chief operating officer of engineer Verdantas, shared new data from a broader business workplace survey by research consultant Employee Engagement Group, indicating that only 17% of respondents said all employees had returned to an office or field site full-time, with 30% reporting that only one-quarter of staff had done so.
About 36% of survey respondents said they will continue to offer “unlimited flexibility” if jobs allow for it, while just 5.7% have made on-site work required, Kidd said, adding that 29% have allowed employees to choose “core days” for office work versus 11.4% that have management deciding.
About 51% of GWIC attendee respondents said in an instant poll that their workplaces now have a hybrid office-remote work arrangement. The conference, held live May 11-12 for the first time in three years, drew more than 700 industry attendees in San Francisco.
Photo: Ross Marlowe/The Photo Group
“Although people are increasingly returning to the office, the remote employee is here to stay,” said Kidd. “Maintaining culture and developing employee career tracks will need to be a focus in hybrid or remote work.”
Results of an instant conference poll showed that about 51% of GWIC attendee respondents said their workplace now has a hybrid office-home work arrangement, with 39% indicating full-time on site work and 9% mostly working from home. About 32% of attendees said women will fall behind in their careers with new hybrid work models many employers are adopting, though half believed they would thrive in the adapted work environment.
“I formalized working from home for my company,” said Bisa Grant, CEO of Anchor, a California construction management firm. She emphasized that “full engagement is not where you’re working, but that work is getting done,” and urged attendees to “make sure you’re on top of things." Jazleen Aguilar, marketing manager for Colorado mechanical contractor Murphy Co., said women need to “step up” use of work processes “never done before” and not to avoid asking the same kinds of questions when working remotely as they would on site.
Lauren Ruth Martin, a Tennessee-based workplace burnout therapist and owner of Novel Consulting, said the pandemic has “amplified" the need for employee services. “Burnout is an issue of bandwidth” and “can evolve into a diagnosable mental health condition if it goes unaddressed,” she said, urging attendees to adopt the workplace mindset of “humbleswagger,” which she defined as “remaining confident in your strengths while acknowledging that we are all fallible.”
Agility is the Word
Even as women seek new ways to adapt to the changing workplace, the quickening pace of the post-pandemic market is opening new design and construction arenas for demonstrated leadership potential.
Gretchen Gagel, CEO of Greatness Consulting, shared her research on what makes organizations “agile”—able to adapt again and again to new conditions. “As leaders, we need to be able to deal with changes in our business context and to lead through that,” she said.
Sonia Lopez, a preconstruction executive at contractor DPR, joked that while the firm “didn’t know there was going to be a pandemic … we were working on how to prepare for the next thing,” so it had ramped up hiring in the two years prior. “When this did happen, we already had a team in place and dashboards to show clients how to tackle supply chain,” she said.
In a large organization such as the U.S. General Services Administration, which builds and manages federal government facilities, turning the ship is not that easy, said Julia De Rosi, a deputy assistant commissioner, but new technology enabled a pivot to virtual project inspections. While such agility is a “short-term response” to the pandemic, it also allowed GSA to gain longer-term operational and strategic value. “We are not just working in the business anymore, we are working on the business,” she said. “It was really transformative for GSA.”
Global beverage giant AB InBev realized that it could be “more agile than we thought we could be and that was really through the empowerment of frontline workers,” said Carolina Pallaro, its global director of engineering and projects execution.
The firm decided to build a permanent 100-bed hospital in Brazil—approved by management in three days leading to a collaboration with a modular contractor and a hospital chain. Built in just 33 days, the project spurred others in Ecuador and Peru, and generated a tool kit for future use. “The challenge for us as construction leaders is how we foster this same sense of purpose in our normal business,” said Pallaro.
Sky's No Longer the Limit
Nancy Bray, director of spaceport integration and services for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, pointed to women in high-profile positions in its current and future project execution—including the Artemis program, which will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon.
Maria Lehman, incoming American Society of Civil Engineers president (second from left), told GWIC attendees that it's important for girls to see themselves developing careers as construction sector professions.
Photo: Scott Blair/ENR
An organizational chart she displayed during an address entitled, “The Sky’s No Longer the Limit,” showed that women now hold half of the spaceport’s 22 leadership roles. They include Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, NASA's first woman launch director, who will oversee countdown and liftoff of the Artemis rocket and spacecraft test flight this year.
“We’ve got to keep encouraging young girls and get them excited at the elementary [school] age,” Bray said.
Pressure on the Pipeline
Industry veterans outlined the challenges of building the workforce pipeline, offering insights on how to advance careers for next-gen women and men.
Maria Lehman, an executive of engineer GHD and incoming president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, noted that “It’s important for girls to see themselves in the profession,” pointing out that 70% of women engineers leave the field within 20 years. “There are not enough white men to do the work we need to do,” she added.
Henry Nutt III, a Black former union sheet metal worker wno now is a preconstruction executive at Southland Industries and chair of the Associated General Contractors’ national diversity and inclusion steering committee, said “We have to monitor and enforce change … not to penalize, but to hold [industry] accountable.”
Caryn Halifax, CEO of the International Masonry Institute, the bricklayers' union training arm, underscored efforts to promote industry work early to students as a viable career option, emphasizing that school counselors "are not incentivized to push people to non traditional occupations." Also an ACE Mentor program national board member, she said the organization provides $2.5 million in annual scholarships to industry prospects.
"We really need to understand that we have to bring everyone to the table early," said Agnes Weber, a TRC Cos. senior vice president with 37 years of experience in public and private sector construction management. "They need to experience good and bad situations. We want people to fail softly. That's how you learn."
Lara Poloni, global president of AECOM and a 30-year industry engineering veteran, emphasized in career anecdotes that the key to leadership impact is as much tied to empathy and trusting one’s instinct. Women often feel they have to be “super-assertive and speak with force,” she said. “I disagree.”
Another lesson, she said, is “start with 'yes.’” When ultimately offered a C-suite position at AECOM, Poloni initially balked, saying she felt she wasn’t ready. Poloni urged attendees to “say 'yes,' work backward from there and figure out how to make it work.”
As part of an environmental, social and governance strategy announced last year, AECOM has targeted women to make up at least 20% of its senior leadership and at least 35% of its workforce “near term." The program also ties leadership ESG accountability on projects through annual audits of specific performance targets. “We also take a look every year” at women’s salaries, said Poloni, and “if adjustments are needed, we make them.”
Power Plays For Women
Emphasizing the strong career potential for AEC trade and technical professionals in dynamic clean energy sectors such as offshore wind and solar power, respectively, Alla Weinstein, founder and CEO of project developers Trident Winds and Castle Winds, and SOLV Energy business development manager Alison Adams updated GWIC attendees on opportunities for talent as the fossil-fuel transition accelerates.
Touting California’s just announced state draft plan for 3 GW of floating offshore wind by 2030, and up to 15 GW by 2045, Weinstein, an industry pioneer, detailed the early challenges she faced to gain any U.S. support. She now has major floating wind energy development projects proposed in California and Washington state.
“You kind of have to look beyond the horizon to realize that things might not happen today, it may take you 10 years before you can see reality,” she said.
SOLV Energy, formed last year from Swinerton Construction's spinoff of its clean-energy building business, is one of the largest U.S. solar sector constructors. "One thing that I love about this industry is that it’s at the intersection of so many things,” said Adams. Solar is "incredibly flexible, we can put it in lots of places, pretty much anywhere that the sun shines. I think this is one thing that gives so much opportunity for women.”
Infrastructure Investment: Spurring Diversity
The $1.2-trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is an anticipated vehicle to propel solutions and funding to address diversity imbalances in AEC staffing and projects, said Giovanna Brasfield, CEO of Brasfield & Associates, an industry DEI and training consultant.
Rhianna Rogers, a RAND Center policy researcher, questioned whether the law's broadband investment, with a $100-million allotment compared to billions for other infrastructure sectors, needs a boost as a key link to stakeholders, particularly in environmental justice communities.
With the administration’s focus on underserved communities, new funding will uniquely position AEC firms to monitor and improve how public works projects impact them, said Bridget Ssamula, a senior director of AECOM, pointing to integration of qualitative geodata into project planning. Tracking project performance through quantifiable metrics to create accountability can lead to meaningful change in underserved communities, she said.
“Firms can use data to pinpoint exactly how a project will impact a surrounding area and add human equity back in,” said Ssamula.
“These are the places, when we are talking about climate risk and climate impacts, that bear the brunt of these decisions,” said Allison Brooks, executive director of the Bay Area Regional Collaborative (BARC), a group of seven San Francisco Bay Area government agencies.
The multibillion-dollar expansion and upgrade of Terminal 8 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, N.Y., spurred owner American Airlines and key contractor Holt Construction to customize a program of extended outreach to boost involvement of businesses owned by minorities and women, and local firms. It included mentoring for firms that did not pass prequalification hurdles, to improve their future options, said Alexandria Perotti, a Holt director.
Often, diversity efforts are perfunctory, where “you put up a flyer,” said Oby Chiapa, operations manager with Group PMX, which assisted in the effort.
The process resulted in engaging more than 200 new firms, 125 subcontracts issued, and 225 mentoring sessions offered to 5,500 attendees over two years, with subcontracting goals exceeded, said Asmita Gharat, American’s project manager.
Industry's Emerging Arenas
Attendees also gained insights on the unique legal and cultural nuances of project development on Indian-owned lands, as tribes, with more than 600 federally recognized, seeking to expand revenue potential. More government-backed projects also are eyed by the administration, with significant new federal funding earmarked for infrastructure and community improvement.
“Tribes want you to do your homework before you start working with them,” said Pilar Thomas, a partner at law firm Quarles & Brady and a former Indian affairs official in the U.S. Interior and Energy Depts. While she termed gaming-related development on indigenous lands “an anchor of economic and infrastructure development for tribes” since a 1988 federal law enabled it, Thomas pointed to the added complexity of project and contract approval because of tribes’ sovereign status.
Tahda Ahtone, an attorney and Arizona-based developer on tribal lands, added that while tribal lands have key tax exemptions, she urged industry professionals to clearly understand the intricacies of land ownership
“Tribes are not low-hanging fruit,” said Kari McCormick, client services director at Wenaha Group, a development consultant and PM for indigenous projects. She pointed to needed inclusion of tribal member workforce preferences that will “ build community after you’re gone.” Such outreach can offer “rewards tenfold” in building longer-term project relationships.
With significant climate change impacts intensifying, next-generation industry talent will be critical in developing and implementing solutions, particularly in revamped and reimagined water infrastructure in the face of widening drought conditions, said Newsha Ajami, a PhD civil engineer who is chief researcher in earth and environmental sciences at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
"We are living with the consequences of infrastructure built 100 years ago, a top down rigid system," she told the GWIC audience. "We have to rethink our model and extend our idea of what infrastructure is. We design for certainty and nature is very uncertain."
Ajami emphasized that "we need a lot of diverse ideas at the table," noting that "60% of the world's cities have not yet been built."