Celebrating Women in Construction Week
By Katie Rapone, editor
Since 1953, the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) has been advocating for women in the construction industry and helping create a support network for those women in the field. Women in Construction Week, March 7-13, was started to highlight women as a vital part of the industry.
Mile High CRE interviewed three women that work for Colorado-based construction companies: Birgit Daniels, superintendent for i2 Construction, Kelly Cooper, project engineer at Catamount Constructors, and Hannah Hagener, project manager for PCL Construction, to find out what it takes to succeed as a female in such a male-dominated industry.
What attracted you to a career in construction and how did you get started?
Birgit: I have always had a passion for architecture and exploring how things were built. When I started my career straight out of college, I was told that I would not be worth much to anyone, unless I learned to work with every trade onsite. If I expected someone to perform at a certain level, I surely needed to understand what it took to get there. So, I did just that, and over the years learned so much. Many years later, I became a superintendent and have enjoyed my journey every day. I learned so much from the “old timers” and know that I am who I am today – because of the detailed work I learned from them.
Kelly: I grew up having the privilege of being able to travel at a very young age and was instantly mesmerized by city skyscrapers in different cities. I took an early interest in architecture and loved reading about different styles of architecture, famous architects, etc. Around the time I was applying for college, I realized, my drawing skills were not up to par, so I opted to study architectural engineering instead. I had three co-ops in construction management after that, both in Cincinnati and Denver, and instantly fell in love with construction. I love the fast-paced communication, the challenges of meeting project budgets and schedules, and the ability to work with a multitude of companies through clients, designers, and subcontractors. I enjoyed the fact that it is an industry that is both challenging and equally rewarding.
Hannah: My true passion for engineering truly came to light when my mom sent me to an engineering camp at Michigan Tech University at age 15. I spent a week in a dorm with “roomates” learning about the multiple engineering disciplines. I pursued a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Marquette University. After graduating and working at a Chicago-based design firm for five years, I quickly realized my favorite days were the days I visited the job site. This realization led me to pursue
a career that allowed me to be onsite and see firsthand the real-life application of the work I was doing, with the opportunity for day-to-day collaboration and team interaction.
What are some of the challenges you have faced as a female in the construction industry?
Birgit: I have been in the construction industry for well over 30 years. I remember facing quite a few challenges during my early years, where the most common question was, “What is that blonde chick gonna do out here for us?” Over the years, I learned to laugh and say, “Get your gear on, I am going to work with you today.” Wearing my knowledge and ability on my sleeve, they quickly stepped back and were ready to take on project challenges with me. Not taking “no” for an answer and investing a lot of blood, sweat, and tears along the way has been well worth it.
Kelly: Thankfully, I have not been treated differently as a woman and minority in the industry, so far. The worst thing that happens is people assume that I am not involved with my project and that I have a limited secretarial/admin role. I think this is a societal stigma since women are very new to the industry, relatively speaking, especially in engineering/project management roles. Some people I’ve worked with have been in the industry for so long; it is a rare sight for them to see women in the role I possess. I don’t take offense when that happens, I just simply and confidently remind them of my role.
Hannah: As one of the few females on project sites, the biggest challenge I have faced is unconscious bias. Because I spend most of my time onsite in the trailer, people stop by throughout the day to ask questions, and sometimes assume I am a project administrative assistant vs the project manager. This unconscious bias from other team members has taught me the value in being able to speak intelligently and confidently about contract documents, project details and building sequences. I am always doing my research to ensure I am the subject matter expert in the field. Another unique challenge I’ve faced is lack of female mentors and peers. I believe challenges are best overcome through collaboration. It’s my hope that as young women are exposed to the opportunities in the construction industry, I can serve as an advisor, mentor and peer, using my experience to help them overcome their own set challenges.
What unique skills do you think women have to offer the industry?
Birgit: I believe that women bring a unique style of leadership to the table. We share our knowledge. We are empathetic. We value relationships and we know what drives and motivates our teams. We are also great listeners and care deeply for others. We are great at multi-tasking. We are strong communicators. We see the big picture. With so many specific strengths, we are able to help each person who steps foot on our project focus on performing their best work safely.
Kelly: I think women highlight their qualities of being caring and considerate on the job site, which is extremely beneficial to projects. I believe it’s important when dealing with any kind of issue to use energy to dive fully into what the problem is and what the potential solutions may be, which takes patience. I also think possessing patience and calmness in tense or stressful situations is another quality of women that can add value to an entire project team. Balancing the stress with calm, team-focused, and caring energy can eliminate negativity when there are issues at hand. To reiterate, I do not believe that all women have these qualities and men do not, these are just some examples I have witnessed and also have heard from other female colleagues in the industry.
Hannah: In my seven years with PCL Construction, I have learned a lot about what I have to offer and where I can best utilize my skillset in such a male dominated industry. While I realize everyone has their own set of unique skills to offer, I personally have seen firsthand the value of my effective and constructive communication, attention to detail, ability to multi-task and empathetic mindset. I pride myself on my ability to collaborate and bring people together to encourage multiple voices and opinions. Women offer perceptiveness, and the ability to look beyond what is just on paper, recognizing verbal and nonverbal cues to accurately read a room.
Women only comprise around 10% of the current construction force (NAWIC). What do you think would be a good incentive for women considering a career in construction and why?
Birgit: I don’t believe there should be an incentive for anyone entering the construction industry. I believe one should enter the construction industry from their own ambition and desire. I will be 50 soon. I would like to believe that I have paved the way for other women to want to enter this industry. No matter who you are, it takes time to learn, master your craft, and gain the respect of your colleagues and clients. I have worked hard to ensure that there is a sense of equality amongst my peers. Any woman who is in a male dominated position or industry will never receive an incentive. Our incentive is to show them all our abilities and our knowledge, that will pave the way for our younger generations to come.
Kelly: I think a good incentive for women to join the industry would be to educate them on what a typical day is like for a project engineer, project manager, or superintendent at a construction company. Perhaps there is still a false narrative out there that one needs to know how to build a building the first day you’re on the job, which is not true. I learn every day new things about building processes, building codes, and our internal processes of budget and schedule management. These are all teachable subjects, as well as reading drawings and specifications. I hope that there continues to be more education for young females about what construction management companies and subcontractors are doing daily because I think the miseducation or lack of education is what is deterring women from joining the industry.
Hannah: I believe lack of education around what this industry has to offer is a huge factor in the low number of women in the current construction force. From business development, to operations and engineering, there are several career paths available in the industry. Continued education around this, including project site visits and information sessions will open the door to women looking to find a career they can grow with. For women, like me, who don’t like the idea of repetitive tasks or every day looking the same, a job in the construction industry guarantees that each day looks a little different. Construction is a great industry for those “people-person” women looking for a collaborative and client-centric job.
What’s the best advice you received during your career?
Birgit: My parents were both chemical engineers. My parents raised me to know, that anything I put my mind to, I could accomplish. I began my career, learning from workers who cared enough about me to teach me. There were days tougher than others, my parents sent me a wall hanging I have in my home office to this day that states, “All things cometh to he or she who waiteth, if he or she worketh like hell while he or she waiteth.”
Kelly: The best advice I’ve received is “investing time into preparation gives you knowledge and confidence.” As a young co-op, I didn’t feel confident giving direction to the laborers on my project because I felt I didn’t know enough about their tasks. After my supervisor taught me all he knew about reading drawings accurately, I felt confident in leading the subcontractors to solutions and giving them answers they needed to keep moving. Sometimes, you just have to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work, and no one can do that for you. This advice has been a mantra I have believed in since being in school, and it plays out in this industry every day.
Hannah: “Challenge brings change.” This is a quote I’ve come across and repeat to myself often, and I feel it applies to both my personal and professional life. As a working mother of two in a leadership position, this serves as a reminder than when you challenge yourself and others, you are given the opportunity for growth. Growth wears many hats, whether it’s expanding a skillset, doing something outside of your comfort zone or pursuing a new professional relationship. This quote is a great reminder that with challenges comes reward and that I’m the driver of my own success.