A gendered perspective on the commercial construction industry

by Pam Barr

Be smarter and work harder than your male colleagues—sage advice from a female project manager, who has worked in the commercial construction industry for more than 30 years.
Photo © BigStockPhoto

In 1985, I was only the second woman to graduate from Richmond-based Eastern Kentucky University’s construction management (CM) program. Throughout the next 33 years in the commercial construction (CC) industry, the feeling of flying solo as a female in a male-dominated sector never left me. To be clear, I had female colleagues; at times, though, they were competitors and not conversation partners. I can also report anecdotally the demographics seem to have shifted a bit now. More and more contractors and management firms are hiring women. Nevertheless, the sector is still dominated by men. Others may lament this state of affairs—I understand the emotions, but this was never my approach.

My father, a military man, taught his daughters they could do anything a man could, as well as have a baby. This fundamental lesson resonated with me—I viewed breaking into and succeeding in the CC industry as a challenge I was up for. I was convinced I belonged here and believe so even today. However, not everyone shared my conviction. This brief reflection is a response to those who did not accept me, a thank you to all who did, and an encouragement to my younger female colleagues who are breaking new ground every day.

Initial challenges
As a student, I realized my gender affected the way people viewed my motivations and career aspirations. Even though I was the only woman in all of my CM courses, I did not feel like a trailblazer. My goal was to excel for me, in a field I thought I would love. Most of my male classmates thought I was on a husband-hunting expedition. When I started earning good grades, a handful of them accepted me. We eventually became good friends. I learned an important lesson in that program—I must prove myself to be accepted, so I set out to do exactly that.

After graduation, I did my co-op with the Atlas Companies (then Atlas Metal Products), a materials distribution company in Louisville, Kentucky. After five years, my boss asked me to open a branch in Lexington. He challenged me to break into the good ol’ boys network. I thought he was crazy to trust such a young woman with this responsibility, but once more I was up for the challenge.

Initially, I was not well-received by our clients. The contractors did not shun me, but it was clear they merely tolerated me. People who worked across the street from our Lexington office preferred to call my boss in Louisville than me. No one really took me seriously. However, I had my boss’s support—he encouraged me to hang in there. I steadily started winning more jobs.

I also had to deal with occasional flirtations. As long as I did not feel threatened, I would simply deflect. When a man told me he left his hotel key under the mat, I quickly responded with a smile on my face, “Now, you know I’m a happily married woman.” This usually ended it. If the flirtation was downright crude, I would be stern and reply with the gravity it deserved: “I don’t appreciate it. Don’t you ever say that to me again.” I never had to report any such incidents to the supervisor, although I can well imagine situations when one should. Once, a customer got overly comfortable with a female colleague in our Louisville office. Fortunately, when she took it to the boss, he said he was willing to lose the business over it and she should not tolerate it. We were fortunate to have an employer who supported us.

Work harder and smarter
The common thread through many of my experiences was a noticeable lack of respect. I learned early in my career a degree is not enough—people often questioned my knowledge and never offered me the benefit of the doubt. I had to prove I was capable, willing, and able to take care of customers. I had to work a bit harder and be a bit smarter to prove I belonged in the industry. This was fine with me, as none of these realities were unexpected. I knew I was entering a career where people harbored gender stereotypes and that I might encounter them now and then. However, I expected people to keep their opinions about my gender to themselves. This was not the case. One customer’s unwillingness to do this produced a defining moment for me.

One day, early in my career, I was on the phone with a customer in Cincinnati, Ohio. I had not yet been promoted to project manager, but I was already managing projects. Frustrated with my apparent lack of answers, the customer said very matter-of-factly, “I want you to hang up the phone and get a guy who can answer my questions.” I bawled. I recounted the conversation to my boss. Reaching deep into his reservoir of compassion, he said, “So are you just going to cry, or pick up the phone and tell him you’re going to get the answers?”

In retrospect, I am grateful for this customer’s bias and my boss’s tough love. This situation forced me to reflect on my career choice, and decide this is the career I wanted. Once I reflected and realized that this was the field for me, I was not going to let one man in Cincinnati stop me. This is when I understood I needed to be tougher than the tough trials I would face. I would not wish experiences of gender bias on anyone, but everyone should be so lucky as to experience a situation early on in their professional lives that forces them to choose whether they will allow others to stop them from accomplishing their goals. I decided then and there that neither this man nor anyone else was going to change my mind about whether I belonged in commercial construction.

Win over the skeptics
Thirty-two years later, these issues no longer impact me personally—the bias I used to experience has either subsided or become too insignificant to grant it mental space. Earlier, I used to be very cognizant of being the only female on a jobsite, but now it does not faze me. Similarly, being mistaken for a secretary (which has not happened in a long while) or as someone who is only on the site to do a progress report does not bother me. As soon as the discussion starts, it is clear I am there to address technical matters.

My longevity in the field has also turned negative experiences into positive ones. The person who asked me to get a man on the phone is now a great customer. I have had similar experiences of winning over the skeptics, and I take great pleasure in these accomplishments. I have sometimes had to work harder to get clients, but those I have won over are extremely loyal. As anyone in this field will attest, loyal customers are critical because they shore you up against sneaky and unethical backdoor moves from competitors.

Male colleagues who were most likely to be dismissive of me 30 years ago are now comrades. We understand each other and similarly face—sometimes with apprehension—a younger workforce, which can occasionally seem like it is increasingly interested only in air-conditioned iPad jobs. The younger male colleagues are more accepting of me as a female, but sometimes it is clear it is all still textbooks for them—they speak from knowledge, not experience. Ironically, I sometimes align with my older male colleagues—we are now on the same side, and I enjoy it. Recently, I had a younger colleague warn me about a particularly difficult customer: “You don’t want to call that guy because he’s an old geezer.” I immediately told them to give him to me. I called him and loved him. We spoke the same language.

As a veteran in the industry, I can say with conviction we have come a long way, but still have some distance to cover. I request my skeptical male colleagues to try to see more than the faces of their female coworkers—see the heart, mind, and education. Give us a chance. We may prove you wrong. To supportive male colleagues, thank you so much. Your encouragement has not gone unnoticed. Please keep it up!

For my female colleagues, I have three pieces of advice. First, understand going into the industry there will be resistance, and accept that reality. I do not mean you must tolerate gender bias, but only accept its existence. You must learn to deal with it. It is really their problem and not yours, but it will eventually cross your desk and you will have to address it at some point. Instead of simply complaining about the unfair nature of the industry’s demographics (or at least in addition to it), do something to change them. Work harder. Prove them wrong. Come up with something they have never thought of. Do not dwell on the fact they are not listening to you; find a way to make them listen to you.

Second, do not be your own worst enemy. This cuts in two directions, and what I am going to say is perhaps controversial. In my opinion, being loud and obnoxious does not help the cause—at least not in this realm. It makes it worse. On the other hand, we women should also avoid reinforcing the stereotype of the ‘pretty little thing’ that cannot handle the construction world. Women who willingly play the role of the stereotype are equally detrimental to the cause.

The third piece of advice is the hardest one for those who have experienced discrimination in the workplace—remember people can change. Try to accept people for who they are, warts and all. This does not entail accepting their behaviors, but it does require a commitment not to see individuals in terms of their worst days. It is important to allow others to grow, in the hope that they, too, will allow you to grow, and will not define your identity by your worst days.

After 32 years, I can say with full confidence I still belong in this field. I am still fascinated by buildings, bridges, angles, tensile strength, and all aspects of this exciting industry. My experiences of gender bias have not dampened the excitement. It did occasionally make the journey harder, and I have shed some tears along the way. However, it also made me strong and helped me realize a core reality—there is so much satisfaction in proving someone wrong.

Pam Barr is senior project manager at The Atlas Companies. She holds a degree in construction management from Eastern Kentucky University, where she was the second woman to graduate from the program. Barr can be reached at pam.barr@atlas-co.com.

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