Bridging the gap: 7 women construction leaders share how to thrive in the male-dominated field

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Women in Construction Week — part of the broader Women’s History Month celebration in March — kicked off this week. WIC Week aims to “highlight women as a visible component of the construction industry,” according to the National Association of Women in Construction.

Even though the male-dominated world of construction has become more “female friendly” over the last few decades, the numbers still show that women are underrepresented in the industry as a whole. Women represent 47% of the total U.S. workforce and only 9% of the construction industry, according to OSHA. Given this fact, it’s even more inspiring to come across women who are not only thriving in construction, but who have risen to the decision-maker level in their companies. We spoke with several women leaders in the industry to explore their experiences in construction and to find out their advice for others looking to take a similar path.

Finding a passion

“Somehow in my childhood years, I decided I wanted to go into construction,” said Sarah Carr, vice president of operations, education services at McCarthy Building Co. in Newport Beach, CA. No one in her family was in the industry, but, during a high school drafting class, a teacher showed her a catalog from the construction management program at Sacramento State, and she was sold.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Hannah Ginley, vice president of administration at Windover Construction in Beverly, MA. Ginley had no background in construction before being lured by Windover from a position at the Harvard Business School.

“Here I was working for one of the finest and most prestigious institutions in the country, if not in the world, at Harvard, and making that change was a big shift for me,” she told Construction Dive. Ginley called the move a “leap of faith” made easier by the firm’s professionalism and the value she said the company places on its employees.

Mary Davolt, chief financial officer of Englewood Contruction , didn’t foresee a career in construction either, but, as a public accountant, she found herself auditing construction companies and was excited by the unique challenges in construction finance.

“I got assigned to construction engagements, and I was really good at it,” she told Construction Dive. “I was fast and efficient, so I started doing all the construction audits and taxes of closely held construction companies, and I really enjoyed it.” Davolt said she was subsequently hired by a construction company to help them build their business and then worked as a consultant for others before signing on at Englewood.

And although Kelly Johnson, director of Custom Home Coordinators at Atlanta-area Construction  Resources, grew up in the  industry courtesy of her father’s commercial construction company, she said that wasn’t the path for her. First she studied interior design, then worked at a variety of design companies until she found Construction Resources. Johnson now oversees a team that works with owners and builders of high-end luxury homes as they choose materials and finishes. Johnson’s teams are involved in the process from selection to installation.

“I think it’s a little easier (for a woman) to move up in the residential world than it is the commercial world,” Johnson said. She acknowledged the possibility that working hand-in-hand with customers — which is more common in residential work and also her passion — has shaded her opinion in that regard.

And of course, there are the women who have done an end-run around the process and started their own companies. Mary Guerrero-McDonald of Guerrero-McDonald & Associates in Austin, TX, has been a general contractor since 1982 and has some frank words for women coming into the industry. “If women do not act professionally, they do not get respect from the subcontractors and suppliers they are trying to manage and schedule. It takes a particular type of personality, I believe, to be able to work with some (or most) men in the industry,” she told Construction Dive.

Obstacles in the industry

While none of these women recall encountering bias directed at them specifically, Johnson said she tries to nip that possibility in the bud by making sure to stay 100% up-to-speed with her job.

“It’s all about knowledge,” she said. “It’s all about being confident in knowing what you know, but it’s also being aware of what you don’t know and being able to tell somebody you’ll find out and get back to them.”

Lina Gottesman, president and founder of Altus Metal  Marble and wood in New York, said, “If you can show your ability and knowledge on technical field procedures, men begin to respect you as a colleague or equal tradesperson… The key to success as a woman in construction is to be significantly more knowledgeable than your male peers.”

Guerrero-McDonald added, “If a woman in construction doesn’t know the process — critical path, industry standards, etc. —  then she would be out of her element with men who do know and expect any leader in the industry to know and understand it. Interruption of the process costs them money.”

“Being young and going into it, you don’t feel like there are any obstacles,” Carr said. But in recent years, after networking with other women through an organization she co-founded, Women in Construction Operations she came to fully realize the unconscious bias that some women face in the industry.

Carr, who has been with McCarthy for 22 years, said she and her colleagues have noticed that it takes longer for women to reach the same career heights of their male counterparts, and that could be due to a few reasons. Carr said that oftentimes, male managers will “soften” the conversation when it comes to criticism, which can be detrimental to someone trying to improve her performance.

“They don’t really have the hard conversations with you, which I think puts women at a disadvantage because (women) continue to go on through their career thinking, ‘I’ll get there someday,'” she said.

Another hurdle, according to Carr, is the difficulty in developing the all-important personal relationships with vendors and subcontractors. From golf outings to business lunches, Carr said, “There’s still that comfort level where guys like to hang out and do guy stuff with guys, so it’s hard for us to speak up and say we need to develop that relationship too. We need to get to know that person.”

Ginley said she has noticed that field positions seem to lack women, but that Windover encourages employees, no matter their gender, to follow their passions, including if that leads them outside the office. She cited the example of a female project administrator who decided she wanted to be a superintendent instead. “She’s doing everything to empower herself to get there, and we’re helping her,” she said.

How construction can draw more women

So how can the construction industry attract more women?

Ginley said she has seen more opportunities for women open up in the industry but has found that no matter the gender, people are looking for more than just a job these days. “There is a high demand for an excellent employee experience. In order to remain competitive, you have to offer opportunity, and we’re very focused on that,” she said.

Education is the key, and as opportunities increase, more women will come into the field, according to Johnson.

Carr said, “I think people are recognizing that it’s good to have a different voice at the table.” She has been working with McCarthy to tackle the issues of the worker shortage, combined with the push for more diversity in the workforce. “How do you change the culture to be more accepting of diverse talent, but also encourage and promote growth within the company?” she said.

Carr added that it might be time to look at flexible working hours for both men and women who want to spend time at home with young children or ailing parents. With the technology available now, it’s easier than ever to monitor a project remotely, alleviating the need to be on the job every single day, she noted.

Irena Škoda, CEO and founder of ŠKODA Design + Architecture in New York, told Construction Dive she has a unique approach as a woman CEO of a company that is 80% female. “I’m sensitive to my employee’s family commitments because I’m a mother myself,” she said. “This type of consideration for a person’s lifestyle goes far in creating loyalty and dedication among one’s staff. It isn’t just kindness, it’s savvy business sense and helps with production and profits.”

Davolt said she takes a more straightforward approach to the issue.

“If you know your stuff, and you do well with it, you’ll be successful at anything,” she said. “No matter what your gender is, you still have to earn your respect.”

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