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Women in Tilt-Up

By: Clare Martin, Constructive Communication

More than ever, women are breaking down boundaries and exceeding expectations in the construction field—and they’re starting with the Tilt-Up concrete industry.

It’s a man’s world. So the old saying goes, but over the years, as women have risen to positions of power within the workforce, government and the home, it no longer rings true. Still, there are certain male-dominated industries in which this maxim is widely believed, and one of the most noted of these is the construction industry. According to a 1999 OSHA study, women made up less than 1 percent of construction workers when the organization was formed in 1970—and by 1995, the number was up to only 2.3 percent.

But the industry is changing rapidly. New technologies are developing, allowing innovations that were once considered impossible. Contractors are finding ways to do more work in shorter time-frames. And in the midst of this evolution, more and more women are finding a place in this male-dominated industry. According to the National Association of Women in Construction, the number of women in the field climbed 18 percent between 1995 and 2003—as of that year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that women made up nearly 10 percent of the construction workforce.

“There are a growing number of women in the industry,” observes Kimberly Kramer, a professor in Kansas State University’s Architectural Engineering and Construction Science Department. “When I started 17 years ago, only 2 to 3 percent of structural engineers for buildings were women—now approximately 5 percent are women.”

Not only is women’s involvement in the construction industry increasing by number, but women are also branching out from traditional accounting and bookkeeping roles to accept positions previously reserved for men.

“I encounter more and more women in what were traditionally male careers,” says Dana Scott, marketing director for Scott System Inc. “I work with more female engineers, project managers, construction managers and product reps than ever before. If you look at construction as a whole, I think there are definitely more women choosing this career path.”

“We have come a long way,” agrees Jeanne Fischer, business manager for Woodland Construction. “There are definitely more project managers in the field that are women. Women have advanced from simply being on the administrative end of a project to being managers.”

One such example is Linda Lindquist, Chief Estimator for Seretta Construction Inc. She began estimating reinforcing steel in the late 1970s and then ventured on to serve as an estimator for a masonry contractor, earned her GC license and ultimately went to work for Seretta in 1991. Lindquist recommends that those interested in breaking into this male-dominated field search out a contractor that self-performs the work so they can learn what really happens in the field.

“If you work hard and do a good job, the results will follow,” says Lindquist. “Also, if a woman presents herself as a professional, then she will be treated as a professional.”

Industry Innovators

Over the past few decades, one sector of construction has shown remarkable growth and innovation The Tilt-Up concrete industry has transformed itself from a utilitarian construction method used solely for warehouses and big-box construction into a versatile, architecturally viable option for a multitude of projects, including schools, hospitals, churches and residential dwellings. So it’s no surprise that such a forward-thinking industry would have, over the years, also developed more and more roles for women.

“There are many opportunities in the Tilt-Up industry that are well suited to women,” says Jo Ella Schroeder from Tilt-Con Corporation. As Vice President of Construction, Schroeder has earned a rare title for a woman in the industry. “It’s my personal belief that women tend to be very detail-oriented and thorough. These talents are well suited to many positions, such as engineering, estimating, detailing, project management and contract administration.”

This attention to detail also naturally lends women an advantage in designing Tilt-Up projects, observes Karen Hand, a Project Manager and Project Engineer for Kansas City-based firm Needham & Associates. In addition, she adds, “Women are typically more extroverted than many male engineers. We tend to be our own project managers and coordinate well with other trades.”

The growing popularity of Tilt-Up construction means the roles for women within the industry will only continue to expand. “With the amount of possibilities for Tilt-Up application, it is a great place for women to have a career,” says Tina Neyer, Vice President of Administration for Cincinnati-based Neyer Construction.

Kim Corwin, Business Development Manager for construction supplies distribution firm AH Harris & Sons, agrees, stating she has earned respect as she has risen through the ranks in the industry – starting as a secretary/ receptionist and now in a lead sales role.

“Women in construction have come a long way,” says Corwin. “Our ability to multi-task and stay focused is key to success in a high-pressure, male- dominated industry. The Tilt-Up industry is a great place for women.”

Women on Board

Sensing the valuable roles women can play within their organizations, some companies who specialize in Tilt-Up concrete construction have begun to recruit women actively for open positions, both by attracting female candidates at the college level and by giving women avenues for networking once they are in the field. For instance, Woodland Construction has made an effort to reach out to women with construction-related majors while recruiting at Middle Tennessee State University. And Kramer touts Kansas State’s Women in Engineering and Science Program, which gives young women in these men in Tilt-technical fields opportunities to explore various career choices.

Perhaps the most progressive tactics are those demonstrated by Hensel Phelps Construction Co., which sponsors an intra-organizational group called W-Net, designed specifically for women in the company.

“We get involved in the community, support women in the company, promote women in construction at colleges, and work hard to make a difference in the construction industry,” Rebecca Waldo, a Field Engineer with Hensel Phelps, says of W-Net.

Fellow Hensel Phelps Field Engineer Angela Perry agrees the company went out of its way to make her feel valued as a woman in construction. “They did a great job to attract me by letting me do one of my interviews with a female project manager,” she says. “I was able to ask questions about how females were treated [within the company], and she successfully eased any fears or doubts I had about working in construction.”

Breaking Barriers

But just because women have managed to put a dent in the glass ceiling of the construction industry doesn’t mean getting there was easy—or the challenges they’ve faced are entirely in the past.

Although women have made significant inroads to acceptance in certain positions within the industry, there are others where the old stereotypes still seem to hold fast.

“When I was interviewing for a job while I was still in school, I was interviewed by a man who said that if I were to be hired, I would be put inside the office doing marketing or accounting tasks because women did not belong outside in the field,” Perry says. “At first I thought he was joking, but he was completely serious. Thankfully I was able to find a company that did not share that same belief.”

More commonly, though, the challenge faced by women in the industry is not which jobs they belong in—it’s whether they belong there at all.

“I have been ‘dismissed’ when participating in a male-dominated situation as someone who couldn’t possibly contribute,” admits Scott, “but at other times I have been treated with great respect.”

Alecia Wilmeth, a project manager for Panattoni Construction Inc., occasionally encounters someone who is surprised to find a woman in her position, and sometimes those same people aren’t sure what to expect.

“They (those surprised to see a woman) usually discover that we are all trying to reach the same goal and that is really what it is all about anyway,” says Wilmeth.

Most women in construction agree that although they sometimes have to make an extra effort to demonstrate to their male counterparts they have the knowledge and ability to back up their role in the industry, doing so is usually enough to earn them the respect they deserve.

“People automatically assume I am the bookkeeper and don’t know anything about the industry,” Fischer says, “but they quickly realize their error when we start talking about the industry and they realize the extent of my knowledge.”

Words of Wisdom

Not surprisingly, this is the one piece of advice that women give over and over to their contemporaries who are looking to make a career in construction: know your industry.

“Do your homework,” says Kimberly Kayler, President of Constructive Communication Inc., an all-female marketing communications firm serving the construction industry. “The women I have seen that have had a hard time didn’t bother to learn the industry. We must learn the industry the same way men do.”

In the same vein, other women stress the importance of adapting to men’s business tactics in order to excel in an industry where the gender balance is skewed.

“Don’t take things or people too seriously; you have to learn to interact and relate to a male- dominated industry,” advises Kimberly Messer, director of marketing for CON/STEEL Tilt-Up Systems. “Still, sometimes you have to hold your ground when it’s really important.”

Carolyn Suss, an executive assistant for Citadel Contractors Inc., stresses the importance of being confident. Keep your focus on what you want to accomplish, she says, and don’t let someone else decide what you would be best at doing.

Not everything for women in construction is a battle—most women in this field just work hard and enjoy what they do, finding these two qualifications cause any other issues to fall into place.

“Don’t feel the need to prove you belong in construction,” Perry offers. “If you love what you do, you will do just fine.”

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TILT-UP TODAY, a publication of the Tilt-Up Concrete Association, is THE source for Tilt-Up industry news, market intelligence, business strategies, technical solutions, product information, and other resources for professionals in the Tilt-Up industry. A subscription to TILT-UP TODAY is included in a TCA membership. Subscriptions for potential TCA members are also available. If you would like to receive a complimentary subscription to the publication, please contact the TCA.