From 0% to 9.5% in the field and 24% in project management and administration today; these numbers represent the growth of women working at Nunn Construction over the last 40 years. While improvements have been made, women are still a minority in our industry. We gathered some insight and advice from some of the women at Nunn to help illuminate the challenges they face in construction and how best to support the next generation of women to see our industry as an engaging and enticing career path.
Not surprising, all the women we spoke to who work in construction project management, estimating or the field at Nunn had fostered an interest in construction from an early age. Not unlike many men in similar roles in our industry. They spoke about a fascination with buildings, how things were put together, the hours spent putting together LEGO and K’Nex sets, or simply a general interest in how things around them worked mechanically or structurally.
UNITING THROUGH SHARED INTERESTS
So why then do fewer women pursue a career in construction as compared to their male counterparts? Historically, it was a lack of opportunities and openness to women in the industry, but that isn’t the case so much today. Thanks to efforts over the last few decades to re-envision equity, education, and curriculum, there is increased support for women to enter STEM careers and the construction trades. The perception that only men can excel in our industry is dismantling but there are still barriers to tackle. While some of those barriers are internal perceptions, we believe progress can be made through increased awareness and support from each of us in our industry.
To help other women overcome the real or even perceived challenges, our female team members offered some great advice to others thinking about a career in construction. The importance of building confidence was a common theme as well – not being afraid to speak up and be assertive. Morgan Zionetti, Assistant Superintendent encouraged women to “hold your ground. Especially in the field, women often feel that they are always being challenged despite their knowledge or qualifications.” They encouraged women to, without putting up a front, practice speaking up and offering what you know and being confident in the job you are doing. However, don’t be afraid or intimidated to ask questions. You might be surprised at how open others are to help you grow in your knowledge, skills, and career.
DEVELOPING A SENSE OF PLACE AND CONFIDENCE
Construction has a deep history of apprenticeship and passing down knowledge to the next generation. Many folks see that process both as a way of giving back what was given them by their mentors and vital toward sustaining our industry’s future. An overt interest in learning and curiosity is seen as an asset in junior staff that you are worth investing in. Many of our staff echoed the advice to dismiss the common misconception they had starting out, centered around only being able to gain respect if they knew everything, and to kept quiet if not. Bre Sailas, Project Engineer recalls, “I often felt like I had to overanalyze what I was talking about, so I sounded like I was confident and that I knew as much as the next guy. Eventually, I learned I don’t need to prove myself; I know what I know and I’ll be confident in the work I do.” Experience has taught them that there are no dumb questions, and often the question they may have doubted asking ended up helping their teams reassess complications and remember the simplest solutions.
BREAKING STEREOTYPES THROUGH LEVERAGING SKILLS
It’s not a surprise that despite improvements and an openness toward careers in construction, many women still struggle with gaining and maintaining respect in an industry where dominating physical strength can still be perceived as a necessary quality. When you look past the stereotype of a “construction worker,” the key qualities that equate to long-term success and a sustainable career in construction are not contained to any one gender. Some of those qualities are:
- Empathetic communication skills such as the ability to listen and ask good questions
- Building and maintaining long-lasting relationships
- Finding supportive compromise
- Creating high-performing and accountable teams
Anyone can embody and develop those qualities, and several researchers have made the argument that many of those qualities might be more naturally suited for women.
Often the question they may have doubted asking ended up helping their teams reassess complications and remember the simplest solutions.
In guiding a team, women can often more easily bring empathy and creative problem solving so that everyone’s concerns and ideas are heard and incorporated toward a solution. Women can also excel in inclusive planning and inviting people into those processes. We’ve seen our industry broadly adopt the benefits of these approaches in Pull Planning – which is a more collaborative way to build and maintain a schedule that invites trade partners to be an integral part of the process instead of a traditionally top-down approach that doesn’t include trade partner input.
All emphasized the importance that having a mentor or advocate has been to their success. Mentors can help problem solve challenges, build confidence, and with someone in your corner – provide encouragement for being more assertive. Kellee Briggs, Senior Estimator emphasized that “whether you have a formal mentor or not, surrounding yourself with good people who want you to succeed is key.” To those more established in their careers, you don’t need to be a formal mentor to other women on your team to make a difference.
We’d like to challenge us all to take some steps that can pay dividends for the women we work with: Solicit feedback or ideas from the women on your team next time you’re in a meeting or brainstorm session. Acknowledge their expertise and successes. Support their opinions or approaches toward solving challenges. It boils down to this: Treat them the same as anyone else that you work with. These simple efforts will help build respect for the women on your teams and grow their self-confidence. It’s our hope that by encouraging each other to support every member on our teams, and building awareness about the variety of challenges facing them, that we can see our industry grow to be more successful, equitable, and a place where everyone can thrive.