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March 4, 2024

Paving the way: Our next generation of women construction leaders

University of Washington


Women in Construction Week is a time to celebrate and raise awareness of women's contributions to this traditionally male-dominated industry. At the University of Washington, a dynamic cohort of women majoring in construction management within the College of Built Environments are embarking on their journey to enter the construction industry. Their vision, leadership, and determination serve as inspiring examples to other young women considering majoring in CM.

In this article, we will celebrate and explore the perspectives of five remarkable students and how their different paths converged onto the same road through the UW's CM program.



Casey Lawler, a senior majoring in CM and architecture, shares her journey into the construction industry, highlighting her passion for building and creating, which stemmed from childhood experiences building models and playing with Legos.

Initially drawn to architecture, Casey discovered the dual-degree option in architecture and CM during college, attracted by its hands-on approach and tangible knowledge. Despite not having family ties in construction, she found mentors and connections during college that shaped her career aspirations. Casey values the problem-solving aspect of architecture and CM, likening a building to a giant puzzle. She appreciates CM's active engagement with sites and witnessing design realization.

Contrasting her internship experiences at a small architectural firm and a more prominent general contractor, Casey gained diverse perspectives on the construction process. Her transition from architecture to CM was influenced by positive internship experiences, highlighting the practical application of knowledge and the hands-on nature of CM. She has a job lined up in CM after graduation.

Casey advises women considering a major in CM to have supportive mentors, stay curious, and not let setbacks deter them from pursuing their goals. She acknowledges the intimidation of being one of the few women in the industry. However, she encourages women to view themselves as potential role models and understand their positive impact. Casey urges resilience and determination in overcoming obstacles and focusing on personal growth.



McKayla Burke, a senior majoring in CM, found her interest in construction sparked by her childhood fascination with ski lift mechanics. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she explored various career options. She discovered the CM program at UW, inspired by encouragement from a friend's father who worked in the field. Despite stumbling upon the program by accident, McKayla found it to be a perfect fit between business and engineering, aligning well with her interests and goals.

Throughout her internships, McKayla encountered supportive environments contrary to her expectations of being one of the few women. Her experience working for a contractor's special projects division, where around 80% of project managers were women, was incredibly positive. Working alongside other women in leadership roles, McKayla appreciated the camaraderie and enthusiasm for the environment, finding it novel and enjoyable.

McKayla's internships helped shape her perspective on the construction industry. She acknowledges the UW's efforts in exposing students to successful women in the field, challenging stereotypes, and showcasing the achievements of women in construction.

McKayla advises aspiring CM majors, emphasizing the importance of thick skin and resilience in the face of societal norms and stereotypes. She encourages girls to pursue their interests in construction without being swayed by others' opinions, highlighting the rewarding nature of understanding construction mechanics and processes.



Catherine Dang, a senior majoring in CM, discovered her interest in construction through a serendipitous journey. Initially enrolled in business courses via Running Start during high school, Catherine's introduction to CM came through her cousin, who was in the program. Intrigued, she took a CM course during her first year at UW and enjoyed it. A chance encounter with a company representative at a career fair led her to apply for an internship, solidifying her interest in CM. She enrolled as a CM major and will graduate this June.

Catherine emphasizes the diverse opportunities available to women in construction beyond physical labor, including project management and leadership roles. She stresses the importance of perseverance and asserts that women's unique experiences contribute to producing high-quality work. Catherine encourages parents and students to challenge stereotypes about the industry, urging them not to be deterred by its male-dominated nature. She advocates for women to assert themselves in the field, noting a shifting culture where self-advocacy is increasingly respected.

Catherine's message to parents and children interested in construction centers around challenging stereotypes and embracing the industry's diverse opportunities. She encourages parents to support their children's interests in construction, emphasizing that the field caters to various skills and qualities beyond physical labor. Catherine believes that children who excel in leadership roles or enjoy problem-solving may find fulfillment in construction careers.



Frances Ouyang, a senior majoring in CM, shares her journey of discovering her passion for the field after initially pursuing computer science. Intrigued by the idea of managing projects and teams to build tangible structures, Frances found satisfaction in contributing to the construction process. Growing up with parents involved in remodeling and a brother who is a civil engineer influenced her decision to pursue construction management, particularly in residential construction.

Frances strongly prefers residential projects and intends to pursue this area of construction due to her familiarity with and interest in it. Her dedication to her chosen field highlights her commitment to pursuing what she enjoys, regardless of challenges or demographics within the industry.

Frances reflects on the supportive community within the CM program, contrasting it with the competitive nature often found in business schools. She appreciates the collaborative atmosphere where classmates freely share information and help each other, emphasizing the collective desire for everyone to succeed. She anticipates that these friendships will continue supporting and assisting in various aspects of life after graduation.



Rachel Ly, a junior majoring in CM, embarked on her journey into the field fueled by her passion for PM cultivated during her involvement in DECA in high school. Encouraged by family friends in architecture, Rachel recognized the potential for growth and opportunity in construction, particularly in PM roles. Rachel embraced the supportive environment offered by the UW's CM program. She appreciated its smaller cohort size, and as a freshman entry, she enjoyed the early engagement with the industry and fellow CM students.

Rachel's internships have been instrumental in her professional development. She works as a PM assistant for the UW Real Estate Office during the school year and interned with a general contractor last summer. She valued the diversity and presence of women in leadership positions on the owner's side; however, she observed the contractor's side was less diverse. Nevertheless, Rachel found inspiration in one of the contractor's female principal, who provided mentorship and served as a successful Asian woman role model for her.

Rachel finds construction appealing due to the dynamic nature of the field, where each project brings unique challenges and nuances. Unlike desk-bound professions, Rachel enjoys visiting construction sites and witnessing tangible changes in her projects, highlighting the hands-on aspect of CM.

For incoming students considering a major in CM, Rachel advises building solid connections within the cohort at the College of Built Environments. She stresses the importance of collaboration and networking throughout one's academic journey and beyond for career advancement.


My interview with these students has shed light on what younger women perceive as the opportunities and challenges in the construction industry. Overall, the interviewees had a positive view of the industry, embraced their unique perspectives in navigating male-dominated environments, and recognized the value their contributions can bring to industry.

In summary, some challenges they emphasized were the importance of diversity at executive levels to ensure visibility of upward career paths and caution against tokenism in DEI programs, which may overshadow skill and lead to adverse consequences such as impostor syndrome, leaving women feeling undeserving of promotions.

The persistence of the “boys club” mentality in workplaces underscores the necessity of implementing policies for diversity and inclusion at all levels. Additionally, the students discussed concerns about ageism in the industry, such as being perceived as too young to be taken seriously or overlooked for promotions, possibly due to being placed on the “mommy track.”

It's worth noting that a woman's decision to join a firm can be influenced by the company's commitment to DEI initiatives, demonstrating a commitment to action rather than mere rhetoric: they walk the talk.

In closing, I'm deeply inspired by the determination and enthusiasm of these women as they prepare to enter the workforce. Despite our progress in fostering diversity and inclusion, women still only represent 12% of CM bachelor's degrees conferred nationally in 2021. While UW's diversity numbers are higher (17% in 2022), we must continue our efforts to encourage more young women to join CM academic programs.

Darlene Septelka, FDBIA, is a professional teaching fellow at the University of Washington's Department of Construction Management. She has over 50 years of construction industry experience spanning the globe.

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