At 2:15am her iPhone alarm clock sounds.
“I’m late.” She tosses the covers aside and hurries to the closet.
Cocktail dresses, designer handbags and platform heels crowd the small space but escape her line of view. Quickly, she reaches for a pair of well-worn jeans and Justin Gypsy construction boots, still coated in a thin layer of dirt from just 8 hours before.
As she turns on the bathroom lights, she imagines the illuminated jobsite where the placing and finishing crews have already started the concrete pour. Distracted by her thoughts, a brush is run through her hair while the curling iron and straightener lie idly at the bottom of the drawer, patiently waiting for the weekend.
Curls or teased hair wouldn’t survive her hard hat anyway, which she promptly throws on once inside the construction trailer and twists the headlight to the right to make her way in the dark across the jobsite.
“How’s it going?” she asks as she nears her Superintendents. It’s 3:30am and the 350 cubic yard deck pour is still going. Rather than coffee, she is fueled by genuine care and an uncanny love for concrete.
As Assistant Project Manager on the project, it’s her responsibility to manage the self-perform concrete, structural coordination, interior TI design completion and cost-management.
She surveys the scene a few feet from the concrete pump while carefully balancing her footing on the rebar mat which will soon be buried in concrete. Where there are only columns, shoring and rebar, she sees an aquarium. And where there is only men, she sees a hardworking team.
“My Dad used to preach two things about working in the construction industry,” Brittany said.
- You get hired for your technical skills, you get promoted for your management skills, and you get fired for your lack of leadership skills.
- You start out building buildings, and you end up building people. Anyone can learn the technical skills to build a structure, but not just anyone can effectively lead a team.
We sat at the patio enjoying the same routine night cap that we have since we were roommates 7 years ago. Except now I was staying at her new house on a trip back to Scottsdale from Los Angeles and catching up on life, including work.
“When you’re young, you think that you can just put your head down, work really hard and your accomplishments and humility will get you where you need to be,” Brittany said. “Eventually where you want to be is up in the board room with the men.”
Nothing about my best friend had changed, from her genuine kindness to her kick ass work ethic. However, like a building being constructed, it was apparent she had grown, from a simple concrete slab to a radial monolithic concrete shark tank, since the girl I knew post-college.
“But what you come to find out,” Brittany continued, “is that you can be the best builder, but if you aren’t building relationships with your leadership team and advocating for yourself, you won’t get the same opportunities as your male peers. As cliché as it sounds, you are in charge of your own destiny.”
“I’ve been very fortunate to attend several empowering industry leadership trainings and conferences focused on Women in male-dominated industries. There is a glass ceiling, more-so in construction than any other industry,” Brittany said. “Women make up only 2.6% of the construction workforce, from trade labor to corporate positions so we are the biggest minority in construction.”
In college Brittany wanted to be a developer and studied in ASU’s College of Architecture; however, her dad advised her to start with a background in construction. She dove straight into the male-dominated industry and did her best to blend in with the boys, including 12 – 16 hour days and taking projects in remote areas out-of-state.
“It is very common for women to get stuck in middle management and then they stay there or quit. There are many reasons for this, but I think the most common reason, specific to the construction industry, is juggling the challenging travel logistics and long hours when women decide to start a family.”
In Brittany’s trainings, she’s also learned that women are less risk-averse, making them less likely to ask for the tough projects and advocate for themselves.
But she’s ready to change that.
The Challenges Women Face
“Women are promoted based on performance and men are promoted based on potential.” – Sheryl Sandberg, “Lean In”
Brittany and I snipped off the special exhibit bracelets from our wrists and set them next to our glasses of wine and the tickets to the aquarium from earlier that day.
“At the last conference I was at, the Partnership Women in Construction Leadership, one of the brilliant panel members said that’s because men view men side-by-side and men view women face-to-face, similar to their relationship with their mother, their wife, their daughter. So, until you can show them that you’re relatable and you are just as credible as them, they’re never going to view you as an equal.”
“People want to promote people who are like themselves. This is also known as unconscious bias. Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.”
“Unconscious bias is a perception challenge that women in male-dominated industries need to be aware of so they can manage that perception,” Brittany stated. “Before my male co-workers get to know me I’m always self-conscious of being perceived as too bitchy or a push over.”
While being a female affords the benefit of meeting a certain minority requirement for some companies, I thought back to each time I faced this as a female in the tech industry. I thought about each time that I sat face-to-face across a conference room table looking at all men.
“So, many times my older, more experienced male co-workers say, ‘Oh you’re like my work daughter,’ and that’s great that they care about me, think I’m sweet, and they want me to do good, but would they promote their young daughter? Probably not.”
She refilled our wine glasses with Costco’s finest and pulled her hair back in a ponytail, returning it to its natural state. I examined the aquarium ticket, thinking back to those concrete tanks that I once witnessed as Brittany shared her vision of what they would become.
How to Succeed as a Woman in Construction and Male-Dominated Industries
Brick by brick and pour by pour, Brittany has grown to reach higher and higher positions that offer new perspectives – if you’re daring enough to climb the ladder leading there.
1) Ask for what you want
Since meeting Brittany I’ve seen her dedicate herself to constructing parking garages, moving to the middle of nowhere for solar projects and hustling her way towards the coveted position she now holds: Self-Perform Concrete Manager.
When I asked Brittany what she would tell women who want to start a career in construction or another male-dominated industry she responded, “Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, such as a challenging role on a tough project. Even if you think you’re not ready seek out the challenging roles that will stretch you and make it your mission to execute.”
2) Grow a strong network of women professionals
“How do you think women can better empower each other in the workplace?” I asked Brittany, selfishly wanting to know as a woman in tech who often feels pitted against other women vs. building each other up.
“Grow your network of women professionals. I’ve built strong friendships with my female peers at work, and we’ve become a great support system for each other. When your competitive side takes over, just remind yourself that there are enough seats at the board room table for you and your female co-workers; so help each other get there!”
3) Make sure you have a supportive partner
They walked side-by-side through the aquarium construction site as Jeff asked questions and looked around in awe at his girl friend’s project. Now, two years later, he joined us in their shared kitchen to look through photos of the finished project and offer compliments: “You look great, babe.”
“Having a really supportive spouse or boyfriend is so important in this business. They have to be very understanding and support you on those stressful days, supportive of the long hours and know that some weeks you’re just not going to make it home for dinner. I’ve also noticed that many men are intimidated to date a woman with ambition, who makes their career a priority, and that just wouldn’t work for me.”
Jeff started picking up our plates of pizza crust and wine glasses.
“One of the things that attracted Jeff to me was my ambition; he enjoys having a partnership where we can challenge each other and share all the details of our day together. He really brings out the best in me at work and at home.”
4) Seek a mentor or sponsor
Brittany’s love for construction started at an early age thanks to her father who spent his professional career in the industry and instilled his passion for the trade in her. However, even with family support, Brittany encourages seeking a mentor or a sponsor.
“A mentor can teach you, inspire, guide you and give you feedback. A sponsor is someone in the boardroom who’s going to speak up for you when they’re considering you as a candidate for running a job. The sponsor is going to say, ‘Well, Brittany should run it because of x, y, and z.’ So find those sponsors, speak up for yourself, don’t be afraid of telling them what you’re capable of, and what you want to do.”
5) Show your team you care
“I finally asked for that challenging position, and I got it with the aquarium project. It was the most challenging concrete project we’ve done to date in the Southwest division with a tight budget so we were under-staffed with an impossible schedule, a radial non-typical structure and a really challenging design. I was working with some of our best concrete Superintendents who were much older and more experienced than me. I had to earn their respect as a young woman and building partner.”
I thought back to the aquarium earlier that day with its huge curved walls and giant shark tank in the women’s restroom.
“Once they saw my work ethic, and that I genuinely cared about what was best for the project and best for our team, I had earned their respect. We became a very close-knit family.”
I picked the aquarium ticket stub off the table and set it next to my laptop.
“I worked harder than I ever have, but I’ve never been happier and more challenged. And to go back a year later and see the finished product is pretty rewarding.”
Brittany cleared off the table, picked up her heels and headed to her room to set her alarm for another day. I tucked the ticket stub into my bag as a reminder of dreams realized as she called out over her shoulder, “Night, hun!”