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March 11, 2021
Everything clicked for Bridgette Cheal in 2004.
After years of studying the electrical trade Cheal landed her dream job, working for the city of Seattle's Facilities Maintenance Department.
“On the first day of the job,” she said, “it was sunny and I found myself driving my new work van on the Seattle Viaduct with, literally, the keys to the city. It was wonderful and full of potential.”
As the National Association of Women in Construction celebrates Women in Construction Week, local women reflected on the paths taken to succeed in construction and challenges they have faced along the way.
Cheal's construction journey sprang, she said, from economic necessity. “I had two years of college education and when I reached 30, I realized that I needed more to provide for my two young sons,” she said. “The electrical trade provided a way for me to both have a job and further my education, so in 1995 I started in the JATC apprenticeship program.”
After completing her apprenticeship training and teaching, Cheal got that dream job with the city of Seattle. “My pivotal moment came when my boss left the city and I was asked to fill in,” she said. “I distinctly remember being at my first meeting as crew chief and was asked my opinion in a crucial meeting. I had this ‘I've-made-it moment' and it felt great.”
While Cheal said she has achieved many of her goals in construction, there is still a perception problem for women in construction.
“There is a generally low expectation for women in construction,” she said. “This perception is not limited to men in our field, but often shared by the general population. Just last week I had a female real estate agent come to my house and ask me, ‘Whose work truck is that in the driveway?' When I said it was mine, she had a surprised look on her face.”
During her time with the city of Seattle, Cheal helped maintain about 100 critical buildings, including city hall, and developed and implemented preventative maintenance programs. In her current position as electrical field supervisor for Sequoyah Electrical and Network Services, Cheal works on new construction projects, project management and maintenance. She works with clients to develop project scopes, work estimates and material specifications.
“The trend for women in construction is gaining strength,” she said. “I think this trend is in part due to outreach programs in schools, leadership camps and mentorship programs. I also believe that when women are seen working on a construction site, I think there are other women walking or driving by and thinking, ‘I can do that.' It just takes one woman who is proud of being in the trades to inspire others to try.”
CHANGE OF HEART
For Margot vanSwearingen, a senior project manager with Skanska, being a woman in construction leads to the occasional “awkward” moment, she said.
“Probably one of the more common challenges is having someone assume that the male in the room is the more senior person or the person with the decision-making ability and having to correct them, it can be awkward,” vanSwearingen said. “Though more often than not, the men I work with are usually the swiftest to correct someone. Another challenge is the assumption that I do not know as much about construction or details and therefore I am subject to receiving some lengthy explanations about things I am knowledgeable on already. Both of those scenarios test patience, but aren't necessarily hurdles.”
VanSwearingen is Skanska's senior project manager for the $116 million Highline High School in Burien, designed by Bassetti Architects. She said there is never a dull moment, as she works on cost analyses, subcontractor negotiations, reviewing field conditions and collaborating with the design team.
After studying architecture at the University of Washington, vanSwearingen worked at an architecture firm, gaining experience and credits to become licensed. Along the way, she had a change of heart.
“A good friend of mine at the time worked as a construction project manager and her experiences sounded like where I wanted to be headed in my career,” she said. “It took some time to let go of the idea of being an architect and to leave a great employer, but I ultimately had to admit where my interests truly were. I transitioned to Skanska as a senior project engineer and worked on a couple of mid-rise office and multifamily residential projects in Seattle and Bellevue.”
Having more options in the construction industry means that the construction field has become more attractive to women, she said. “It helps that the industry itself is diversifying so much in what falls under the umbrella of construction — sustainability, project management, accounting, scheduling specialists, contract administrators, tradespeople, safety managers, etc.,” she said. “So there are more lanes.”
“Organizations within companies, like women's and diversity networks, have brought an awareness to simple things like mentorship equity and hiring goals and expectations, which seem obvious but can easily be a blind spot if people are not talking about them and looking for improvement,” vanSwearingen said. “We're seeing more women in the trades — when I first started it was noteworthy to see a woman in the field, but today it almost goes without comment. It is similar in our jobsite offices. Trade schools, colleges and companies making gender diversity a priority have made a difference.”
Having worked on the design side and the project management side, vanSwearingen said she brings a diverse perspective to the project manager job. “I bring a level of empathy to my teams, trying to view the scenario from the needs or concerns of each party — owners, architects, subcontractor partners, etc., to achieve results and build relationships. I have high expectations for myself and my team, so I set the bar high and try to provide tools, experiences, and advise for people to hit that goal themselves.”
For Cheal, her career in construction is about “bringing buildings to life,” she said.
“I am a relationship builder,” Cheal said. “I just love connecting people, developing relationships and building a team. It brings me great joy. What I most enjoy about working in construction is the theory behind what we do and the end result. Combining the mechanical aspect and electrical theory is fascinating. Being part of the end result with the ability to say with pride to my now-grown sons ‘I worked on that one' as we drive past a Seattle high-rise is exhilarating and rewarding.”