Recently, the construction industry celebrated women in construction as part of "Women in Construction Week (WIC): March 1–7, 2020." As a woman who has been in the industry for over 20 years, it is so exciting to see all the social media posts of how women are contributing to our industry.
Twenty years ago, I often felt like I was the only woman in our industry. I actually referred to myself as "an Only." My work took me on several trips and provided me opportunities to attend industry events where I was typically one of the only women in the room. As I look back on navigating my career and the unique challenges that women face in the industry, I realized that I often found myself having nowhere to turn for advice.
As I began to find my confidence, I also found my voice and became an industry expert on various construction safety and risk management topics. Over the years, I noticed more women in the audience. After each presentation, women would often stick around to ask me questions. Yet, the questions were never related to insurance or construction. They were asking me the following.
I realized that I was not only an expert in construction risk and safety. As the years passed, I had unintentionally become an expert on how to navigate a career and raise a family in a very untraditional industry for women. And so began my journey to write my latest book, The B Words: 13 Words Women Must Explore To Achieve Success. 1
As amazing as the social media posts seemed to be during WIC week, the messages are a bit deceiving. Construction is still a pretty lonely place for women. Currently, women make up only 9.3 percent of the entire industry workforce; 86.7 percent of those work in the office. The field is an even lonelier place, with women making up only 13.3 percent of the workforce.
Women face many obstacles, including the following.
Source: The Future of Women at Work, Transitions in the Age of Automation, McKinsey Global Institute, June 2019.
One of the major risks facing the future of construction is the talent shortage. The lack of talent has created the risk of higher prices, missed business opportunities, exposure to subcontractor default, and safety issues. Attracting and promoting women to the construction industry could be the answer to the labor shortage. Yet the number of women in construction are still few and far between.
Women today now have more education than ever before, but women continue to gravitate to lower-paying roles such as teaching, administration, and health care. These roles were the only roles available to women in the 1950s. In 2020, there is perceived access to higher-paying roles like construction and engineering. Women are either self-selecting out of these fields, or the barrier to entry and sustainability is still alive and well. The only way this will ever change is by intentionally creating opportunities, access points, and acceptance of women. Women can't do this alone. Men and women need to build a bridge of lasting change.
For those women in the industry who do a self-check, can you honestly say that you champion other women in the workplace? How do you know for sure? Where are you on the advocacy continuum, and what else could you do to create a more inclusive and diverse workplace? To really check where you are at in support of other women, take the time to participate in the Gender Advocacy Profile quiz created by Jeffrey Tobias Halter. These 20 questions will help you determine how committed you are to embracing gender equality in workplace dynamics.
Most women know "ready now" men who have expressed interest in women's equity topics. Perhaps, they are the father of a daughter, had a working mother, or have a working spouse. They are interested in being supportive but just need some direction or ideas on how to parlay their interest into being an ally or help on how to act as an advocate.
Women must take the initiative. Invite male colleagues to coffee, set up a call or a meeting, and candidly share your experiences as a woman in the industry or in the organization. Then invite them to attend a women's leadership meeting or program. If your organization does not have one, discuss the option of leading such a group.
Point prospective male advocates in the direction of online tools such as the following.
Men should start with the Male Advocacy Profile to recognize any unconscious barriers they may have to truly supporting women in the workplace. Today's reality is that some men see the #MeToo movement as male-bashing and view women as radical and disruptive. Recognizing barriers and tendencies toward disengagement is key to change.
The next step is to get educated about what women face every day. According to a 2018 study on sexual harassment and assault, 2 in 5 women will be exposed to sexual harassment in the workplace, 2 and Pew Researchers found that 6 in 10 women say they have been sexually harassed. 3 This dynamic must stop.
Organizational leaders must recognize that change starts at the top. CEOs set, demonstrate, communicate, and enforce the core values of the company. If an organization's core value is to empower women through diversity, inclusion, and culture, the CEO will provide visible and vocal commitment and a zero-tolerance policy for harassment or discrimination. This isn't just a memo or a page in a corporate handbook; this is leader-led training with visible management commitment.
I have been the only woman in the room, an Only, for far too many years to count. I have also worked extremely hard to get the coveted Only seat at the table. And yet, the reality is that my hard work and education would not have mattered if it were not for the good men who cracked open the door and gave me a chance. They all had similar qualities. They respected me, treated me as an equal, defended me, and supported me when it was obvious that I was not being supported because of my gender; they gave me a chance to grow and learn within their organizations.
When I was 21 years old, I had two degrees from college, and my work experience consisted of a sandwich maker, typist, receptionist, and waitress. I applied for a job as a claims adjuster. I wore my grandmother's suit to the interview because I didn't own one. My first boss was the director of an employers' insurance office in Texas. In the 1980s, it was okay for interviewers to say things like, "You are too young. Why should I hire you?" I responded, "I just need someone to give me a chance. I should not be penalized because I have two degrees at 21 years old. It should show you my work ethic."
My interviewer replied, "Anyone with that attitude deserves a chance to become a claims adjuster," and he offered me my first job. I made $17,500 a year, and I was given a company car. I had hit the jackpot. I had made it. To this day, I rely on this boss's example of leadership in leading my own teams. He set high expectations, was always available for questions and support, and passed on his knowledge. He never micromanaged or concerned himself with time clocks and hours. He had a philosophy to never mess with people's time or money. His team was expected to manage their own time. Pay raises were never promised; they were earned. When someone on the team was not meeting his expectations, he dealt with it head-on. His team was high performing and happy.
There are many men who have helped me advance my career throughout my journey, and I am sure there will be more in the future. My goal now is to encourage both men and women to pave the way for the new generation by building bridges. The idea of scarcity—of the zero-sum game and of there not being enough room for everyone—is obsolete and broken. Both men and women need to champion the future and abolish the outdated notion of nontraditional roles in the workplace. People should work where they are best suited and have the skills, work ethic, empathy, and talent to perform. One day, gender will have nothing to do with success.
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