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March 6, 2023
The Puget Sound region’s construction industry in many ways on the forefront when it comes to innovation is missing out on an opportunity to lead the country when it comes to promoting women in leadership roles.
The elements of success are in place: We have one of the largest chapters of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) in the U.S.; the Washington State Department of Transportation has made diversity in contracting an explicit goal; and construction hiring managers across the region are being measured on their ability to recruit women. Despite this foundation, the number of women in construction leadership are still not what they should be to make Puget Sound a nationwide leader.
Here’s how our industry can fill the gender gap so that five years from now, when we celebrate our 30th Women in Construction Week, industry and government leaders around the country will want to be part of our success.
MAKE CONSTRUCTION ASPIRATIONAL
Currently, recruitment is too focused on the transactional and not enough on the aspirational. What does this mean? It means we need to go beyond programs that only increase applicant volume. We simply aren’t doing enough to normalize the idea of women leading in a male-dominated field. The entire construction brand is caked in a history of maleness; it’s going to take a concerted effort to market our industry to the girls, young women, and students who are making decisions about long-term careers.
We need media representation that goes beyond women doing remodel flips. Let’s tell the story of women planning and managing large commercial projects. Stories that show how the kind of strategic and collaborative skills women bring to fields like law, finance, and medicine also make them excellent leaders in large-scale and complex construction projects. In short, we need to invest in making construction not only a normal job for girls and women, but an exciting and lucrative career path.
EXPAND STEM TO INCLUDE CONSTRUCTION TRADES
The science community has done a great job of building campaigns and programs that invite girls and young women to dream big about a career in STEM. Until now, our industry has been completely left out of this equation, and this is a missed opportunity. Locally, companies are investing in making sure that girls who love math and science think high tech is their first, best, and only option. Our industry has the opportunity to expand that narrative so those girls can dream about standing on a massive jobsite as a gleaming office building goes up, an affordable housing project gets delivered to the community, or a new light rail line is put into service.
How many career coaches and college job counselors are encouraging young women to imagine using their people and operational skills to manage a jobsite, rather than a retail or hospitality team? Often, women bring a unique set of skills that help round out the capabilities of their team. Firms can benefit from the creativity, problem-solving ability, time management, and unique perspectives of a more diverse team.
STEM comes in all shapes and sizes. Workers who have an understanding of how things come together, who have spatial intelligence and are great kinesthetic learners, come in all genders and can lend their skills to a wide variety of fields. High schools and colleges need the tools and programs provided by industry that paint a vivid picture of how all genders who love to work with their hands can express that in fields beyond arts and culinary.
COMPANIES: BUILD THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE
Transformative change doesn’t happen magically. Just like construction, amazing things are built through deliberate process. In our industry that often means men need to be at the vanguard of this transformation encouraging growth, mentoring, and rethinking the workplace for all genders.
Companies can support professional growth by providing financial and managerial support for staff to participate in groups like NAWIC and CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women of Seattle). The companies can pay for memberships, allow time to attend events, and ask staff to share what they learn with the wider team.
Companies can also formalize mentorship programs that give females confidence to go after opportunities. Research shows that women are less likely to pursue opportunities even when they’re qualified, while men are more likely to apply even if they’re not. Overcoming these obstacles is absolutely doable, but the mentorship programs have to be in place. And the male leaders who implement them need to feel that it reinforces their own ability to be a great boss to all genders; someone who knows how to mentor a winning team.
Workplace changes that are known to attract women, like flexible schedules, remote work, and even childcare, also appeal to a new generation of workers who are willing to work hard as long as they can put just as much dedication into their families. This broadens our ability to attract and retain the people who will lead this industry into the future.
A few Puget Sound construction and development firms are making these changes, but we have much more room to grow. Every day I see gaps and opportunities as I work with the incredible leaders building our vibrant region. We’ve got a great foundation in place. Nothing should be holding us back from being leaders in this space except our willingness to invest in the next generation. Because no one is better at building the future than the construction, architecture and engineering industries.
Lisa Poole is the founder of LinkMe, a talent acquisition and growth consulting firm helping connect the architecture, engineering, and construction industries to what’s next.