Skip to Content
Construction Quality

Create an Inclusive Culture for Women

Rose Hall | April 24, 2020

On This Page
Woman leading a business meeting

As shown in Women in the Workplace 2019 by McKinsey and Company in conjunction with Lean In, women are the slight majority in the insurance industry at entry-level, but the percentage steadily declines in the more senior positions. The engineering and construction industries are similar.

While the number of female engineering students has climbed over the past 20 years, it still hovers just below 20 percent. Less than 9 percent of workers in the US construction industry are women, according to the National Association of Women in Construction. Out of almost 10 million people working in the industry, only around 900,000 are women. These are some of the lowest percentages of female workers in any industry in the United States.

It's easy to assume this is because women are exiting the workforce, perhaps due to personal lifestyle choices such as raising a family or caring for ailing family members. Statistics show that 15 percent of workers left their jobs in 2017, and of those remaining, slightly more women decided to stay in the workforce compared to male colleagues (82/81 percent). This proves that women are not leaving the workforce, but they are just not getting promoted. If we hold this pace, we will move the bar only 1 percent over the next 10 years. However, if we promote and hire women at equal rates as men, we can gain 10 percent over the next 10 years—which, incidentally, still wouldn't bring us up to 50/50.

Why do this, though? Why do we care about these numbers? Because diversity is immensely powerful. Eighty-seven percent of companies say they prioritize diversity because it produces better business results. However, only 52 percent of the employees of those companies said they feel the impact of that prioritization. 1

How can we better maximize the impact? What if there were some way to influence this trend that benefits men, women, and the entire industry? What if we could each be a part of "Making it Better"? And not because it's the "right" thing to do, although it is, but because it produces better business results.

There are three influential actions that I believe will help us increase female representation in the construction risk industry.

  • Embrace our differences.
  • Erase the bias.
  • Strengthen advocacy.

Embrace Our Differences

When both men and women perform the same task, different areas in their brains activate. Historically in the medical field, studies were performed on men and then extrapolated for women on the assumption that women are simply smaller versions of men. In 1995, we learned that males have bigger heads and thicker skulls but have the same number of brain cells (just in a smaller space) as females. Women have larger amygdala's, enabling us to more easily sense threats and recognize fear and errors. These traits are often perceived as "perfectionism" or "nitpicking" but, in reality, are better described as "hypervigilance." These traits are extremely beneficial in a business setting, especially in the business of risk management!

It has been said that women's decision-making is based more heavily on their emotional intelligence, while men's decision-making is based more heavily on their logical intelligence. This is great news because both perspectives are crucial in business. In fact, I would argue that you can't afford NOT to have both when making decisions about risk. Diversity of thought is immensely as powerful. Embrace it and make it your competitive edge.

Erase the Bias (Social and Self)

In 10 years, the image of a woman has evolved from a sex symbol to an image of strength, energy, and adventure. We've also seen strong signs of equality in our vernacular over the past few decades: a "stewardess" is now a "flight attendant," a "secretary" is now an "administrative assistant," and "workman's compensation" is now "workers compensation." But, we still have work to do to balance the scales.

In 1995, there were zero female CEOs in the Fortune 500. Now there are 33—but, there are only 33. That's 6.6 percent, and I know we can do better. Cheryl Sandberg said, "In the future there will be no female leaders, there will only be leaders."

Erasing the bias means identifying and influencing change every day. Studies show if you take a woman's résumé and replace her name with a traditional male name, the applicant has a 71 percent greater chance of receiving an interview offer. My friend, Tracy Saxe, experienced this firsthand when he graduated law school in the eighties. He sent numerous résumés out but struggled to get called for interviews. Once he revised his name to read, "Mr. Tracy Alan Saxe," the interview requests poured in. Although gender-neutralized names are more common now, this struggle still exists today.

Here's another example: My sister is a secret service agent, and her sworn duty is to protect the president, vice president, and other heads of state. She stands post, scanning the area for threats with eyes and ears always alert, ever ready to perform the duties necessary to maintain the safety of her protectants. She stands guard with one hand on her weapon and the other on her radio. It is an intense job with a lot of pressure and responsibility. More than a few times while standing at her post, a man has approached her to say, "Smile, honey, you look so serious!" This is infuriating. Her job is very serious—there's no sense pretending it's not. She faces potential life and death situations every day, and she's not standing there just to look pretty. Additionally, no one would say that to a man. Consider that for one moment. Would you ever walk up to a male secret service agent, standing tall with his arms folded, wearing the exact same uniform as my sister—a uniformed black suit with white shirt, belt packed with weapons and equipment, earpiece wire running down his neck into his radio—and casually say to him, "Hey buddy, how about a smile?" No, I don't think you would.

Let's apply this to a business setting. Picture a conference room. As you enter, you see 10 men and 1 woman. Do you assume she's the executive or the admin? When looking for coffee or the restroom, is she the first person you ask? Why? Watch what happens in a meeting with her. Do people talk over her? Does anyone "mansplain"? Does someone repeat her idea as their own? More importantly, when you see these actions, do you consider how you can be a positive influence on the behavior in the room? Influence does not need to be combative, awkward, or uncomfortable. It can be graceful but impactful: "Gee, Frank, I'd really like to hear the rest of Sally's thought before we move on." Even if the bias is not directed at you personally, you have the power influence it for someone else's benefit.

Erasing the (Self) Bias

Women tend to apply for a job if/when they fit 100 percent of the criteria. Men will apply if they fit 60 percent of the criteria. I recently heard a story of a woman who did not apply for a position she wanted because the requirement was for someone with 15 years of experience, and she only had 13. While that seems like a no-brainer to me, to someone else, this way of thinking may stifle opportunity. Author Alice Walker once said, "The most common way people give away their power is by thinking they don't have any."

In the above cartoon, neither image is completely accurate—but the key is learning how to balance these perceptions to a healthier self-image. I believe there is a crucial distinction between self-confidence and ego. Self-confidence is believing that you are capable and your work is valuable. Ego is believing that your work is better and more impactful than everyone else's work.

Below are some tools to navigate self-bias that have served me well.

  • Be confident. There's no need to be embarrassed, apologetic, or coy if you don't have all the answers. Have confidence and speak with conviction—even if you are "confident" that you don't know the answer! Commit to taking the initiative to learn more, find the answer, and/or resolve the issue. When confronted with something you're unsure of, it's perfectly acceptable to respond by saying, "You know, Sam, I'm really not the best person to answer that question, but I'd be happy to look into it and get back to you."
  • Show up how you want to be seen. If you embody confidence, people will have confidence in you. If you embody insecurity, people will question your capabilities. Humans tend to mirror others; therefore, if you treat yourself with respect, others will do the same. Likewise, if you do not respect yourself, you can expect to receive a similar sentiment in return. If you want a seat at the table, take one, and be mindful of the responsibility of sitting there. Confidence is quiet, and insecurities are loud. I have counseled many younger females in the industry to look for the open seats at the table, use their voices, and always aspire to live up to the responsibility entrusted to us to help raise the bar.
  • Don't try to lead like a man; lead like you. It's important to study the styles of others, but be sure not to try to emulate them completely. Be authentic and find your own genuine leadership style and own it. This will ultimately gain you the most respect, whether in the boardroom or the job-site.

Let's go back to that conference room, except in this scenario YOU are that one female in the room. Where do you sit? Do you take a seat at the table, next to the leader of the meeting, or more toward the periphery? Do you sit in one of the chairs lining the wall of the conference room even though there are three open seats at the table because someone more important might want to sit there? Worse yet, do you sit in the back next to the coffee … because that's a guaranteed way to be asked to make or serve some! Where you position yourself in a meeting should be commensurate with your role in that meeting. If you are a player in the meeting, or want to be, do not discount your value by sitting so far away from the conversation that you need a megaphone to be heard, both figuratively and literally.

Strengthen Advocacy

Let's consider some available mechanisms for advocacy that help raise the bar for gender equality.

Sponsorship is about supporting the individual through interactions with others by praising or recognizing a colleague's success absent of ulterior motives. Talking (positively) about someone behind their back as a form of advocacy can be done by anyone, for anyone, and takes little effort. It's about lifting others, and to others, a little bit goes a long way.

Mentorship is a development-focused action of supporting an individual through interactions with that individual. This includes developing goals, providing advice, and offering guidance. This form of advocacy can and should come from various places and does not need to be formalized to be effective. I have found that my greatest mentors have evolved naturally from many influences in my life and career, and they tend to become some of my best friends as well. They are male and female, older and younger, well-educated and self-taught, etc.

Coaching is a performance-focused form of advocacy and is designed to meet specific goals and develop specific skills and behaviors. Coaching can come from professional "career coaches" or be self-taught through books, videos, seminars, etc.

The main goal of advocacy is to elevate the individual. Always remember to advocate for others and advocate for yourself.


The next time you walk into a conference room, I challenge you to step outside of your brain for just a moment and take a mini self-inventory. Observe how your thoughts and behaviors, about yourself or others, conscious and subconscious, frame the conversation or the tone, the ideas that are presented there, and how that affects the outcome of the meeting. Especially, if you're the leader in the room, consider the power of your influence on others' behavior and tone. Watch the powerful things that can happen when we apply positive influence in our business day after day, year after year. In this way, you can make diversity your market differentiator, the reason people want to work for your company, and the reason your customers want to do business with you.

The value we gain in business and in life by eliminating biases (against ourselves and others), embracing the differences around us, and advocating for ourselves and others is unlimited. These techniques cost nothing but thoughtfulness. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.


1 Jess Huang, Alexis Krivkovich, IRINA Starikova, Lareina Yee, and Delia Zanoschi, Women in the Workplace 2019, McKinsey and Company in conjunction with Lean In, 2019.