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High Heels and Hard Hats

One of the most common pop-culture visuals of the gender divide is that ubiquitous construction-site wolf whistle, most often showcased as a lone woman sashays past a jobsite, inviting the leers of the hard hats, who have been summarily distracted from their posts. As is the case with lasting satire, it is rooted in truth. But it is the truth of a generation past.

These days, there is a decidedly more feminine presence in the industry, as noted with the induction of AGC’s first woman president in 2011, Kris Young, president and CEO of Miller the Driller in Des Moines, Ia. In addition, the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) reports that in 1993, 617,000 women were working in the industry. By 2000, that figure had jumped to 886,000. And though these women bring with them new perspectives, new ideas, new ways of tackling challenges and building business relationships, so, too, do they bring the same enthusiasm and love of the business as any other valuable member of its workforce.

When she was in high school, Teri Jones’s dad brought home a set of blueprints for a cold-storage warehouse he was in the process of building. For Jones, now vice president of business development for the Tempe, Ariz.-based Sundt Construction, an AGC member in three states, it was something of a Zen moment. “He rolled them out on the kitchen table and I was just fascinated by the fact that you could take something from a two-dimensional drawing and create a building.” It led her to what was an exciting new major at the University of Southern California at the time: civil engineering building design.

“It was a combination of engineering and architecture, which was a great foundation for construction,” she explains, and although her first job — a position as an estimator for a construction company — came without a hurdle (she was signed on by the CEO himself), the challenges came from being the first female hire into an all-male staff of 15. The year was 1979.

“My [immediate] supervisor was not thrilled,” she says. “He felt I was hired because I was female, not because I was competent.” Luckily, her coworkers didn’t share that attitude. “They were very supportive … and once my boss realized that I wasn’t coming into the company to prove something, that I really was interested in construction and that I’d completed the engineering program at USC — which I will tell you was not easy — his attitude changed completely.”

Years later, however, Jones found herself at a glass ceiling.

“I was ready to move into the role of project manager, to be out on a construction site,” but was continually passed over for male candidates. Management was hesitant to put her in the field. “They wanted me to do the same job, but from an office not an on-site trailer … they were concerned with what would today be classified as a ‘hostile work environment.’”

It was the late 1980s, women in the workplace were commonplace, but pockets of the construction industry, for so long a male stronghold, were slower to evolve. “They were concerned with things like centerfold posters being up in the trailers, off-color jokes and so forth.”

Jones left that job. “I felt in order to advance my career that I needed to get out into the field on a jobsite, so I went to work for another company that offered me that role.”

Holly Hawkins, who graduated from the Milwaukee School of Engineering with a B.S. in construction management in 2001, entered the job market at a good time. “A lot of companies were hiring,” she notes. She had three or four offers out of college, but settled on a firm in Chicago. “I wanted to go to the big city,” she says, “to do big projects,” and although her competency eventually cracked the old boys’ code of superintendents in their late 50s and 60s, she, too, found advancement difficult and sought to align herself with companies whose attitudes toward women were more evolved. (“Realistically,” she says, echoing Jones, “it all comes down to respect — and you gain it once they understand you know what you’re talking about and you’re willing to listen to them.”)

Hawkins is now president of Tri-North Builders’ Milwaukee office. Her strategy and hard work have paid off.

Anna Stern, a vice president at Tri-North, an AGC of Wisconsin and AGC of Greater Milwaukee member, followed a slightly different career path, one that took her through the practice of construction law, but it was hardly unfamiliar. She had grown up with many family members in the industry. “It was a good fit … I didn’t have that internal learning curve that many lawyers do just trying to understand what a change order is.” After practicing law for five years, Tri North — then a client — offered her a position. She’s been with them since 2010.

Stern was born in 1980 and recognizes the contributions of women who’ve helped make things easier in a field that wasn’t always so female friendly. In fact, she still sees the residue of what she calls the “old guard”: “people who are getting close to retirement whose attitudes toward women, while rare, are evident.” She believes it’s largely generational, stemming from growing up in an era in which few women worked at all, let alone in a field like theirs. “Some have changed with the times, but I can see how difficult it would have been for a woman to work with such people.”

Her own history, she says, gave her something of an advantage. “I’ve been around people like these my whole life; they don’t intimidate me,” she says, “but working at a law firm helped me prepare for that too … senior partners tend to be something of an old guard at law firms as well. Most stay involved as long as they possibly can.” Young attorneys have to put in a tremendous amount of time, females as much as males. “And families should not be of concern. If you’re going to be an attorney, you need to just let that go.”

Conversely, says Stern, who has a young daughter, construction is very family-oriented.

“This is an industry that’s relationship-focused,” she explains. “Law firms talk about work-life balance all the time, but they still want you to make your billable hours. In this business, we’re always trying to build relationships with key supply partners — and the guys who run these projects every single day, those in the field, in particular — they’re like a brotherhood.” It’s a family-like attitude that bleeds into the company, the industry, she says. “Everyone seems to understand the importance of relying on each other.”

Jones, who after some time at another company and running her own business, returned to her first firm as a senior project manager — and was assigned a position in the field — has two children of her own. “I’ve been fortunate in that the companies I’ve worked for have been very sensitive to the fact that I’m a mother….” In fact, in 1993 a previous employer even set up a nursery in her office that allowed her to bring her infant daughter to work for about a year. “It was amazing.”

But when her second child was born, it was just not practical. “But I’ve had the ability to be flexible, to telecommute some days. I’ve had an office in my home for 20 years ….That’s been the positive.”

She cautions, however, that some positions in construction — project engineers and project managers, in particular — do not allow for the same flexibility. “Often the projects you’re on— sometimes for 12, 18, 24 months at a time — are out of town,” she explains. “You’re away from home during the week. And you have to have an incredible support system — your spouse, family, friends, neighbors — to help balance that …. It’s difficult to be away from home when your kids are younger.”

Hawkins, who at press time had a four-year-old, a two-year-old and another baby on the way, counts managing the challenge of work and family life among her greatest successes thus far, though with a decided air of reality. “Obviously, there are days I go home from work feeling like the worst mom ever … I’m running late, I have meetings …. My kids have all been on jobsites,” she laughs. “To have an employer, and clients, who understand that occasionally someone gets sick or something else happens, that family comes first — it’s amazing — and so it’s a matter of balance and compromise and organization, the same things that make you able to get out of the house on time are the things that enable you to get a project done on time and make it successful. It’s multitasking,” she says. “It’s something women are innately good at.”

Anyone who wants a management position in construction, says Jones, needs to spend time out in the field on sites. “It doesn’t mean you have to swing a hammer,” she clarifies, “but if you’re physically located on the site and you’re there every day, you learn so much about how projects come together and what the priorities are,” she explains. “And you really have to have that experience to be successful on the management side.”

Hawkins, who worked on a large field project for more than three years, would agree. “I was on-site all day, working with the guys, understanding all the issues and seeing what was going on. You learn how each issue gets corrected, you can visualize them ….” Now in a physical office, she appreciates the perks (“It’s nice to be warm,” she jokes) but says the experience was priceless. “There is a tremendous amount of learning that occurred that got me to where I am today and made me better at what I do.”

Hawkins, like her colleagues herein, has risen through the ranks and attributes that not only to her own competence, but also to her cognizance in aligning with companies where her gender was less likely to have any impact. She advises women following in her footsteps to secure as much experience as possible, particularly in a job market that has tightened considerably. “Have you been seeking internships?” she asks. “Have you been getting experience in the field?” Although companies are far more apt to hire women, they’re still looking for experience first. “Typically, guys coming into the workforce have spent summers with their dad’s construction or landscaping business — something. That’s going to look better than a new graduate who worked at a restaurant or a shoe store. Internships — which unfortunately are often for no pay — can really help young women get experience that will get their resumés noticed.”

She adds that related experience — in a lumber yard or home design store — can help. “At least you’re working with the materials; you’re getting some understanding of how things go together.”

Even from a legal standpoint, says Stern, the same holds true. “Knowing what goes into the projects gives you credibility with your employees because you know the technical aspects of their jobs, the challenges they face. The old guard can assume that because you are young or female, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Getting annoyed serves no purpose, she says. Just show what you know.

“If they can see you’re providing value, they aren’t going to care. They will respect you.”

As the years have rolled on, men’s attitudes about women in construction have changed. That “old guard” is disappearing, replaced by men who grew up with working moms. “Many of our young engineers now work for female project managers,” says Jones. “They don’t think twice about it. Thirty years ago, that wasn’t the case.”

This is a great industry for anyone, says Stern. She would love to see a women’s group formed within the AGC and says the cliché about blue-collar rank and file being disrespectful — if it ever was the case — is really not true.

Jones says she learned very early on that while you can set boundaries on what’s acceptable, and that the industry — like so many others — is far more aware of the desire for people to be treated with respect, she credits the increasing number of women in the industry with speeding the process along. Even so, she notes, you can’t take yourself too seriously. And despite any hurdles, she’s right where she wants to be.

“I love this field. I love the challenges. I love that it lets you touch so many different industries, and so you learn a lot. That’s one of the best parts of having a career in construction. Would I do anything differently …?” She mulls that for a moment.

“You know,” she says thoughtfully, pleased. “I don’t think I would. I just don’t think I would.”