Let's Talk: Building up diversity in the construction industry
While the number of female engineering students has climbed over the past 20 years, it still hovers just below 20%. Less than 9% of workers in the U.S. construction industry are women, according to the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC). Out of almost 10 million people working in the industry, only around 900,000 are women. These are some of the lowest percentages of female workers in any industry in the United States.
Women in construction, like AXA XL’s Rose Hoyle, want to see an uptick in those numbers. With more than 15 years with engineering, construction and consulting companies, and now as a Construction Risk Engineer, she has seen the many career opportunities that the construction industry has to offer women firsthand. She also sees the opportunities that more women in construction can offer the industry. Here she explains.
What has it been like to maneuver in an industry where you are part of a small minority?
Hoyle: I am certainly accustomed to it. When I graduated from Rutgers University, I was one of only four women in a class of 37 students in the civil engineering program…and only two of us are still in the construction industry. One of my first jobs was with a design firm who had been in business for 20 years. I was the first female engineer they had ever hired. Back then it was important to be accepted by male co-workers and sometimes that meant being “one of the guys” to stay included. These days I’m happy to see that as we’ve progressed culturally and inclusion is more implicit rather than forced. I am hoping this will lead to an even greater increase in industry numbers as more women take advantage of the diverse opportunity that the construction industry has to offer us.
What other industry changes have you seen along your career path?
I’ve seen many positive changes. Gender diversity is finally being recognized as valuable intellectual capital. The most notable is the shift from women simply trying to survive in construction (as outliers) to the current industry outreach effort to invite women to pursue a careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. In my daily interactions with clients, I see more women in management positions with construction companies today than ever before. Plus I see more women trade workers in the field as well. As we progress as a society and the notion of gender roles become more fluid, I believe broader acceptance and great opportunities will continue to emerge for women in construction.
What diverse opportunities have you taken advantage of?
After my stint with the design firm, I started my construction career as a field engineer, coming up through the ranks and ultimately landing in risk management at Turner Construction. After Turner, I took a position with a consulting firm handling claims and litigation support for construction-related legal disputes. Even on that end of the industry, I was the first and only female in a senior management/leadership role there. During our growth period we hired many female field technicians and engineers, which afforded me the opportunity to lead and drive female inclusion in a small company founded by a handful of 50-something male principals. As recently as this year I was invited by a mentor of mine to take his place on an advisory board panel, in his effort to diversify the thought leadership in our industry. I’m grateful for these types of opportunities which were offered to me because I’m female, not despite it.
Have you mentored other women coming up in the industry behind you?
I hope so! I have always believed that mentors should not be “assigned” but rather evolve organically from relationships. Often times, the best mentorship relationships aren’t even called that. Sure, I can think of women who have approached me seeking guidance or advice, and others that I have handpicked and offered to coach through a difficult situation or even simply be a sounding board for career ideas. Mentorship has many faces. During my time with the consulting firm I had a male project manager approach for advice on how to handle their female staff in the field. He said, “We have some very smart women on our team but they struggle with the field work. They get intimidated and the field guys walk all over them! How do I help them be more effective?” We needed to start with the women themselves, so I started a small “Lean In” lunch-n-learn series in the office in order to discuss and solve problems openly and in a supported environment. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and I’m told their “field presence” improved. This is how we support each other in life and career and how we repay those who mentored us to where we are now.
During those sessions, what kind of sage advice did you have to offer?
I will share a few concepts that have worked for me. These concepts are rooted in self-awareness and take time to refine for each individual, but they’ve served me well in my career thus far.
- Be confident. This goes for what you know AND what you don’t know. There’s no need to be embarrassed, apologetic or coy if you don’t have the answer. Have confidence in yourself…even if you are “confident” that you don’t know! And then be committed to taking the initiative to learn more, find the answer and resolve the issue. Once in a job interview, the president of the company described a project they’d just been assigned in excruciating detail, emphasizing the complexity in a way that made me believe even HE wasn’t sure how they were going to deliver on it. He then turned to me and said, “So, can you manage a project like this?”. Without hesitation, but not without apprehension, I said, “Absolutely. I can manage anything you want me to manage.” I’m not exactly sure where that bravado came from, as I had no experience with a project like that, and I had literally no idea where to even start, but I had confidence that I would figure it out. I started 2 days later and worked exclusively for 3.5 years on the most challenging and interesting project I could imagine. We were hired for numerous additional phases by virtue of our good work, and today I still consider both that client and that president close friends of mine (and mentors!).
- Show up how you want to be seen. If you treat yourself with respect, others will do the same. And likewise, if you do not, that will show through as well. If you want to have a voice, speak up and be respectful of the audience. If you want a seat at the table, take one, and be mindful of the responsibility of sitting there. Confidence is quiet, insecurities are loud. I have counseled many younger females in the industry to look for the open seats at the table, use your voice, and always aspire to live up to the responsibility entrusted to us in order to move the bar forward for all.
- Don’t try to lead like a man, lead like you. It’s important to study the styles of others, but be sure not to try to emulate them completely. Finding your own genuine leadership style will ultimately gain you the most respect, whether in the boardroom or the jobsite.
If you want a seat at the table, take one, and be mindful of the responsibility of sitting there."
Are there advantages in being a woman in the construction industry today?
Absolutely. Many people think it’s always an uphill battle being a woman in construction, but I don’t see it that way. I feel extremely fortunate that the leaders I’ve followed made me feel as though they truly did not see gender. Perhaps that’s “fortune” or perhaps I inadvertently chose them because of that fact. Regardless, they recognized that in a historically male-dominated industry, alternative perspectives keep us relevant and sharp. There’s tremendous power in the thought leadership that can emerge from a diverse team. And women who look for these opportunities may find they are more abundant than you’d expect. My advice is, always keep your eyes, ears and minds open.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all puppy dogs and rainbows for women in construction. I’ve endured plenty of #metoo moments, and other gender biases along the way. Early in my career I was even removed as the lead on an account because the client said that a 20-something female was not what he expected his construction manager to “look like” no matter how many degrees I came with. As with any situation, it’s not what happens to you in life, it’s how you react to it that matters. In that case, I wasn’t personally offended in the least, because the comment simply wasn’t personal! I expressed to my manager that if the client preferred his construction manager to be a 50-something male in jeans and work boots, that’s cool with me…let’s give him so-and-so and I’ll work behind the scenes. We got the job done, and the client was happy. That was a success in my mind.
What’s the best part of your career now?
The best part of my career is the notion that my value has surpassed my gender. I am a construction risk management professional, not a female-engineer. I joined XL Catlin – now AXA XL – in 2015 and here I am able apply all my skills from construction knowledge, to claims and litigation experience, and risk management in order to help our clients manage their construction risks.
Construction is an exceptionally complex industry in that no two projects are ever the same, which introduces a complex set of risks unlike any other business, and you can’t address those risks without being innovative, flexible and service-oriented. These are our core values here at AXA XL, which are our market differentiators both for customers and attracting talent. We’re hyper-customer and people-focused. Gary Kaplan, who heads our team, gets that. He’s about leadership and relationships, knowing that successful business will follow. And that’s why I follow him.
Rose, Construction Risk Engineer, can be reached at email@example.com.