Women in construction

“Construction is the fastest-growing industry today for women business enterprises (WBEs),” states executive director Sharon Harady of the Center for Women’s Business Research. Between 1997 and 2004, she reports, the number of WBEs in commercial and residential construction increased 30 percent while its total employment surged 44 percent and annual sales by 72 percent.

WIC-Schmidt3.jpgHowever, adds executive director Dede Hughes of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), “Women still comprise only about 10 percent of the construction industry workforce. The figures rise every year, but there’s still a long way to go.”

Yet things have changed since Rosemary Breiner, CEO of Breiner Construction Company, became a general contractor in 1969. “At least today when I call a supplier, they don’t ask me anymore if I really know what materials I need and assume I need an education,” says Breiner, whose firm performs public and commercial projects in the metro Denver area.

Over the years Breiner has gone on to serve as president for her state chapter of the Associated General Contractors, as well as on the national AGC board of directors and as national president of Women Construction Owners and Executives USA. “Yet despite all the progress for women in construction,” she adds, “WBEs still perform only three percent of federal construction projects, and there’s a huge disparity in the size of contracts that men- and women-owned companies perform.”

Beyond the multimillion-dollar projects performed by Breiner and other big-city general contractors, women in rural building have overcome their own obstacles and blazed new trails over the past generation. “The construction industry had a different culture than my previous career,” notes Kim Gee, who together with her husband Gil purchased what is now Gee Building Systems of Shenandoah, Iowa, in 1998.

“Farmers would come in,” Gee recalls, “need something for a grain bin and tell me, ‘Where are the guys?’ I’d say, ‘I can help you.’ But they would just answer, ‘No, I’ll wait for the guys.'” Now a decade later, Gee reports, “Those same customers come in asking for me.” Her title is sales and marketing director, and as a woman “I’m a people person and relate well to customers,” she adds. “So much of construction is sales and customer service. I bring to our business a style of relationship-building which works well in this industry.”

When Jan Arts and her late husband Bill Nimmer started NorthPoint Construction some 24 years ago in Casco, Wis., Arts already had seven years of experience with rural building companies. “But as I called on male customers,” she remembers, “they were willing to give me their information and let me type it up. But for questions they had, they wanted to speak to ‘the guys.'” Yet since Nimmer’s death a dozen years ago, Arts has continued as president and guided NorthPoint into a prosperous business with a volume of up to $3 million per year.

WIC DonnaMay3.jpgAnother woman who serves as president and CEO of her rural building business is Carrie Schmidt of BC Schmidt Construction in Williams, Calif. Not long after earning a college degree in business administration and financial services, in 1995 she and her husband Bill launched their own company. Today that company typically performs contracts worth well into six figures. “But I still have men who call our phone number, hear my woman’s voice, and ask if they can speak to the responsible managing male,” she says. “Sometimes they’ll even to speak with one of the Schmidt

A Variety of Paths
Women in both rural and urban building have something in common: They still encounter occasional skeptics among their male customers and subcontractors. But the individual stories of women who hold positions of leadership demonstrate that today’s construction industry affords women a variety of paths to realize their professional aspirations.

WIC KimGee2.jpgKim Gee was a single mother who, during most of the 1990s, traveled more than 50,000 miles per year selling high-speed digital duplicators. After meeting her future husband Gil, then an Iowa farmer, the couple discussed their long-term future together. Kim was open to cutting her constant travel while Gil, who had farmed since 1970 and owned a prosperous operation, could nevertheless see the increasing pressures on independent family farms.

In 1998, the Gees decided to exit their respective professions and purchased a construction business, one that had built grain bins since 1956. By the time Kim and Gil Gee took over, the company was also erecting all-steel buildings and installing garage doors. Doing business as Gee Building Systems, the couple surveyed customers’ current needs and were drawn to the possibilities of post-frame construction.

As a Wick Buildings dealer since 2003, the Gees still construct grain bins and other agricultural projects, but also perform commercial and residential projects as well. “Now we’re mostly a post-frame builder and not all-steel,” relates Kim Gee. And though she does not try to portray herself as “being experienced in swinging a hammer,” Gee instead wins her customers’ confidence by “showing people that I’ll work hard to get the answers they need.”

Compared to her former career in office equipment sales, Gee says she likes construction “because of the great opportunities I have to work with people and build relationships, something I can do effectively as a woman. Women are detail-oriented and relationship-oriented. And it’s also very satisfying to watch something go from an idea to a finished building.”

For those reasons Gee counsels young women who are pursuing postsecondary degrees to consider construction management. “You’re practically guaranteed a good-paying job,” she advises, “and construction is a great industry for starting your own company. Take some classes in entrepreneurism and small business at your local community college or technical college, and you can put that knowledge to use in a construction setting.”

Gee notes, for example, two longtime electrical contractors in her market recently retired and shut down their businesses. “It’s a shame,” she believes, “that more women aren’t encouraged to enter construction. Because those are two companies that might have been purchased and provided good opportunities for women entrepreneurs.”

One woman who leveraged her college education into an entrepreneurial career is NorthPoint Construction’s Jan Arts. After earning a 1976 degree in accounting and advertising, she went to work as advertising coordinator for a company that built pole barns. “When I was in college,” she admits, “construction was the last thing I would have considered doing. But after graduation I needed a job!”

In order to compose advertisements, Arts had to learn about the construction process. As it turned out, she found the process interesting. After a job change she met her future husband at a metal building company where the two worked. That company introduced her to the market for airplane hangars ,enough to convince Arts and her husband of the potential for a new company that specialized in that niche.

Thus NorthPoint Construction was born in 1983 and, though some 80 percent of its work remains in hangars, another 20 percent of the bottom line is comprised of commercial projects, offices, mini-warehouses, horse barns and garages.

As suggested by Arts’ earlier career in laying out advertisements, she discovered “I was good at layouts for buildings, and that it’s very satisfying to do construction from the initial idea to the finished product.” Since starting a company of her own, she also learned her relationship-oriented management style is an asset in winning contracts and keeping clients.

Arts admits that opportunities for women in skilled construction labor may be limited, at least in companies like NorthPoint, where crews frequently travel overnight to jobs. “Unless you have a completely female crew,” she explains, “a mixed crew would run into logistical problems. We do much of our work out of town, so that our crews share hotel rooms.”

Further, Arts concedes construction has been stigmatized as a career ,not only for young women, but also for young people in general. “School guidance counselors make it seem like construction is what young people might ‘settle for’ if they can’t do anything else,” she laments. “But the pay is good and, as I found out for myself, there are versatile avenues to success.”

Carrie and Bill Schmidt are good examples of versatility and flexibility. When the couple launched BC Schmidt Construction in 1995 they looked at their backgrounds ,Carrie with a college degree in business administration and financial services, Bill with experience in metal buildings and concrete ,and decided it made sense for Carrie to be in the office as president and Bill to be in the field as vice president. Together, the couple and their employees build airplane hangars throughout California, as well as occasional concrete and general contracting jobs.

“Bill handles the construction technology onsite,” Carries Schmidt explains, “and I’m in the office doing administration, finances, marketing, policy direction, payroll, insurance, bidding and estimating, customer service and some project management.” Despite her success in these tasks, she says, “As a woman I sometimes have to work harder than a man in order to prove myself.”

As an example, Schmidt cites her meetings with first-time clients. “In the construction business,” she suggests, “if two men are meeting for the first time then, after about 15 minutes of shop talk, they get comfortable with each other. But for me as a woman, it might take 45 minutes of shop talk to break the ice with a first-time male client.” In fact, she laughs, “Sometimes a man will even ask to look at my hands, to see if I’ve ever done any construction work!”

What Schmidt finds most satisfying about the construction industry “are the relationships you build,” a vital task at which women can excel. “A woman’s management style is an asset in our business,” she avers, “because that style is more relational. And a man and woman working together can complement each other. In a meeting, for example, the male team member might get frustrated, but the female team member can calm things down and keep the agenda moving.”

Schmidt agrees that construction can be a good career option for women, especially if “you go to school and, by completing your degree, show that you’ve learned tenacity and follow-through.” Yet she does have a few worries. Male harassment of female workers does occur on construction sites. And because BC Schmidt Construction crews travel frequently, she notes, “Women present a logistical difficulty since they need to have their own space and it’s hard for them to be just ‘one of the guys.'”

Perhaps the greatest obstacle for women in construction runs even deeper, into the question of gender roles and identity. “I grew up with a dad who was in the Air Force,” she explains, “and now I build hangars. Construction provides good opportunities to start a business, but you’ve got to be passionate about what you do. And the truth is that, as compared to sons, very few daughters grow up swinging hammers with their dads.”

Planning, scheduling, organizing
President Donna May of Cross Metal Buildings in Bulverde, Texas, concurs “Girls don’t grow up doing construction with their dads, so that they don’t come into the industry with experience to know about what’s going on in the field.” Yet in her view, “The biggest need in construction is the ability to keep things going ,and women tend to be planners, which can be seen in the way we manage our families.”

May admits that, given the way in which women are socialized, “The planning, scheduling, and organizing aspects of construction come naturally to me. But the aspects of construction media and materials take more effort to grasp. But with the natural abilities that women bring to the table, if they can also learn about the field operations then they can really excel.”

As one of The Parham Group of companies, Cross Metal Buildings was established in 2004 and specializes in construction of self-storage facilities. May’s duties, as with any company president, are “to make sure everyone does what they should be doing,” she says. Her ability to oversee the operation, and thus her elevation to overall responsibility for the company is based on her 25-plus years in the construction and real estate industries.

After earning a college degree in business with a minor in real estate, May served as real estate and office services manager for a large California-based construction equipment rental firm. When her husband was transferred in 1996 to Texas, May found work with The Parham Group. Initially she was employed as assistant to the president of Parham’s design and construction division, and then named president of its management and consulting company, before her appointment three years ago to head up a new metal-building enterprise.

“Twenty-five years after starting in construction and real estate,” May reports, “nobody calls me ‘honey’ anymore. And in my current role with Cross Metal Buildings, I deal more with our men in the field. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the respect I get.”

In the construction industry, respect is earned. May has earned that respect not only by her longevity but also through her individual gifts. “My female management style is much different than male counterparts,” she observes. “I’m open and easy to talk to, even in a crisis. My style has worked well for our company. The secretary doesn’t feel different talking to me than our vice president of operations feels in talking to me.” By contrast, she believes, many subordinates sometimes feel more intimidated by a male company president.

While much has changed for women in construction over the past 25 years, May suggests the new “post-feminist” generation of young women is also different in some ways than their mothers. “When I was getting started,” she remembers, “it was important for women to establish themselves as good businesspeople.” A generation ago, women faced the pressure of having to prove they could perform, a pressure that since has lessened.

“Now the big issue is not whether women can do the job,” May states, “but whether they have the desire. My company is good about recognizing employees’ needs. But the construction business has lots of time pressures and performance pressures. It can be difficult in our industry to find employment situations where you have flexibility for your career and family.”

Unlike many women who entered the construction industry as newcomers, Elizabeth Juarez-Brockway grew up around the business. “My dad was a home builder and I worked for him during the summer,” she recalls. When she married her husband Roger, a man with experience in steel components, it was only a matter of time until they combined to launch Engineered Structures Inc. of Portland, Ore.

Since its 1980 founding, the company has carved out a niche as a design/build general contractor of custom-engineered building systems. Engineered Structure’s markets are as diverse as commercial and industrial, aviation and, education, and historic renovation. At the same time, Elizabeth’s and Roger’s roles in the operation have evolved during the past 27 years. Since 1995 Elizabeth has held the title o f president while her husband is listed as a principal of the company.

“At the time we started the company in 1980,” Elizabeth says, “I kept on working for a couple of the general contractors and didn’t join our firm full-time until 1986.” Nine years later, the Brockways decided it was time for Elizabeth to become chief executive officer. “There’s an age difference between Roger and me,” she explains, “and since men handle stress differently than women, I wanted him to slow down. The time was right for Roger to focus on the things, sales, business development, mentoring and consulting, that he enjoys most.”

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Brockway found her management style as a woman was well suited to the role of president and could help take Engineered Structures to a new level of success. “My style is collaborative, with lots of team involvement,” she explains. “I don’t micromanage and I recognize that people process things differently. In the end, what I enjoy most working with clients to help make their visions a reality.”

In 1996, Brockway’s abilities were recognized by her peers when she was named president of the Portland chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, as well as to a term on the ABC board of directors. “Women are great networkers,” she affirms, “and I have to admit that I’ve given a lot of time, and tried to give something back to the industry, in part because women have faced pressure to give more, do more, and prove themselves. That’s often meant working every day from 7 to 7, to show people I could come through.”

Today’s construction industry “is still male-dominated,” Brockway observes, “though bias is now less frequent. And with the labor shortage we have in construction, plus the retirements of baby boomers, that’s opening up more opportunities for women and minorities. Women are loyal by nature, and their patience and finesse and detail orientation are helping women to excel in architecture and engineering.”

Brockway believes more women will enter construction because, with the urgent need for more skilled labor and trained managers, “women have to join our industry.” And to those men who may still be skeptical, she cites a proverb learned from her mother. “Women are like teabags,” she smiles. “You don’t know how strong they are until you put them in hot water!”

Just as likely to succeed
Women’s strides as construction company owners and executives, believes Sharon Hadary of the Center for Women’s Business Research, can be attributed to three developments: increased access to capital, the opening of markets as customers seek diversity in the suppliers from whom they buy construction services, and the movement of women into professional networks such as industry associations and chambers of commerce.

WIC KimGee1.jpg“Our research has shown WBEs are just as stable and likely to succeed as men-owned businesses,” Hadary reports. “Financial institutions saw that research, realized WBEs are a huge untapped lending opportunity, and they needed to jump in before other lenders captured all the accounts.”

Women have likewise taken advantage of opportunities to prove themselves and win repeat business. “Being a WBE may get you to the table, but after that you’ve got to win the job and keep customers coming back,” Hadary points out. Women can have an edge, she continues, “because research shows women business owners are more inclusive and relational. In dealing with a WBE, clients come away feeling like their relationship is valued.”

The Center for Women’s Business Research has also documented how “being visible” through professional networking is a key for women to obtain construction contracts. “We asked corporate buyers where they find their vendors,” Hadary explains, “and they told us that they go to their referral networks. So we found that women who own $1 million-plus companies are more likely to belong to multiple organizations and associations.”

Dede Hughes of NAWIC ascribes the growing number of women-owned construction companies in part to the diversity of opportunities in the building industry. “There are so many phases of the construction industry that women can enter and find interesting, from general contracting to specialty trades,” she notes. She agrees women’s access to capital has increased, more colleges enroll women in their construction programs, and woman builders benefit from their relational approach to problem solving.

NAWIC was founded in 1955, Hughes says, “as a network for women, who at the time really couldn’t join established groups like AGC and ABC.

But today, women can join any industry association. And the fact that a generation of women has now succeeded in the industry makes it easier for younger women.

If it really doesn’t matter whether a person is a man or a woman, why does a group like NAWIC still exist? “There continue to be barriers in the construction industry for women, on a regional and market-by-market basis,” Hughes believes. “So a lot of women continue to feel more comfortable networking with other women. We provide more leadership training and education than ever before because women still must work harder to get the same level of respect as men.”

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