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March 8, 2018
Last week, someone asked me why I chose construction and what it's like to be a woman working in the industry. The truth is, I never planned a career in construction, I fell into it by accident — a rewarding, challenging, crazy, hectic and wonderful accident.
Construction is as fulfilling as it is demanding, but working as a woman in construction has its own set of challenges — the wage gap, very little outreach and education, and poor representation — to name a few. This industry has made a lot of progress, but it is clear there is still a lot of work to be done.
Joining the industry
The construction industry and educational system as a whole do a terrible job reaching out to women and minorities to encourage them to get involved in field and technical positions. I didn't even know construction was an option for me until I got a job as a secretary at a local construction company after college.
I fell in love with the fast-paced atmosphere and the opportunity to shape the growth of Seattle, and knew it was where I was meant to be. It took more schooling and even more hard work for me to get my construction management certificate and start my career.
Construction is a business of change. As a general contractor, we rework buildings to make them more useful and efficient, and find innovative ways to solve problems. In the last few years, construction has made quite a few leaps forward and is now much more likely to embrace people with diverse backgrounds, including women and minorities.
General contractors, for the most part, are realizing that having a woman with an engineering degree, an arts degree or an architecture degree brings diversity of thought and unique approaches to problem-solving. Our numbers have certainly grown. In my early days I was almost always the only woman on the entire team, but now I have the opportunity to work with many women, at all levels.
Being a mentor
Part of where I am today is because I had amazing mentors who pushed me to learn more and advocated on my behalf.
This is a tough industry and we tend to bristle when the word “mentor” comes up. Having someone outside your chain of command to talk to, advocate for you and act as a sounding board is key to moving forward in your career. Likewise, any type of mentoring or teaching hones your skills, forces you to evaluate your own processes and enables you to do your job more effectively.
I temporarily left Lease Crutcher Lewis to pursue teaching at the University of Washington for 13 years. I cherish my time at the UW because it allowed me to support hundreds of students as they started their careers. Sometimes I go to meetings and sit across from former students, many of whom have gone on to be successful builders. I am proud to have had the opportunity to be a (small) part of their journey.
After rejoining Lewis in 2014, I saw a need for increased mentorship and started the Pass the Torch mentorship program. We match young employees with more seasoned ones in hopes of creating lasting mentor/mentee relationships, so that the next generation of builders can stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. This kind of relationship is vitally important to young women in our industry.
No one can deny that the challenges that women face are different than those of our male counterparts. As a woman in construction, having a mentor relationship is absolutely instrumental to your success.
My words of wisdom
Every woman must navigate the field of construction on her own terms to find what works best for her, but I would be remiss if I didn't share some lessons I have learned along the way:
Be authentic — you don't need to be “one of the guys” to be successful — you need to be yourself because your input and opinion are valuable assets to your team.
We compete against some of the toughest and strongest builders around. That competitive spirit is part of why construction is so amazing. However, it is important to recognize and applaud our fellow female builders in their successes. We must see each other as comrades first and competitors second.
Finally, we need to have patience and give people the benefit of the doubt. So, give some grace to people who are slow to change their ways and take it as an opportunity to explain a better way to communicate.
Every day more and more women join the industry in all levels of work, from tradespeople to project managers. But I want us to do more. I want young women to dream of hard hats and hammers in addition to lab coats and medical degrees. Women should know from the beginning that they can be the ones constructing the lab that houses the cure for cancer, or the building that will produce the next great tech advancement.
I'm looking to you, my fellow women in construction. We need to take this into our own hands and show the world just how amazing our jobs are. The key to the future of women in construction is the future generation. Become a mentor, get involved in schools, show your pride at a career fair and do informal talks in the classroom. Most importantly, continue learning and be proud of the amazing job you get to do every day.
Sara Angus is a project executive focusing on large commercial tenant improvements at Lease Crutcher Lewis.