Build It: 4 Ways Women Leaders in Construction Can Forge Future
Yes, “Bob The Builder” has a few female characters in his cartoon construction crew, but it is what Antonia Winfrey saw in real life that started her on a career in construction.
Her mother had inherited a residential building, a two-flat garden apartment on Chicago’s West side. Almost a century old, the building had its structural problems. Winfrey (no relation to Oprah) started accompanying her mother to the site to address and fix some of the construction issues.
“She would say, ‘Let’s pick out a floor tile,’” says Winfrey, now a project manager in the Preferred Projects Group at F.H. Paschen, a leader for 110 years in private and public construction across the U.S.
“Not every project was successful for us,” she says of her years helping her mother. “But I saw how our actions directly affected the look, the appearance and how people received it,” Winfrey says.
There was the ceramic floor they installed on top of the wood floor that buckled and broke apart. “Now we know not to do that,” Winfrey says. “The best lessons are that you have to learn by your mistakes.”
Earlier this month, the National Women in Construction Week highlighted the growth of females in the traditionally male-dominated industry. In addition to companies such as Paschen, organizations such as Chicago Women in Trades and Nontraditional Employment For Women are aiming to increase the numbers of women in the field.
“The construction industry is growing faster than any sector. The role of women working i n construction is changing radically. When it comes to the actual work, it feels the playing field is fairly level. I think I get held to the same standards as my male counterparts, which I appreciate. Construction is a super male-dominated industry, and certainly, female on-site construction workers are scarce,” writes Gabriela Escanola, a project engineer with The Boldt Co. in the Daily Oklahoman.
“From 1985 to 2007, the number of women employed in the industry grew 81.3 percent. As momentum grows and the need for construction employees on every level continues, there is a huge opportunity for women to excel,” Knox News reports.
Winfrey has been part of that growth and her career path reflects her intentions from early in her education.
In 2002, Winfrey began at Eastern Illinois University majoring in Industrial Technology with a concentration in construction. She was often the only female in her classes, and likely one of a very few persons of color. It was one of her first classes that taught her a forever lesson.
“I felt separate,” says Winfrey, and in her first materials testing class, the professor told the class to study for the test. She studied hard, but failed, while everyone else in the class got A’s. “Everyone else was white and male,” she says and they all studied together in study groups.
For the next test, she studied even harder, and also failed, saying that everything she studied was not in the first or second test. Again, everyone else in the class got A’s. When she went to see her professor he told her it was likely because she was a first generation college student.
“I said my grandmother went to college, my parents went to college. And then I found out he used the same test every year and the study groups handed over the answers to the test.” She adds, “I felt terrible that whole first year and then to find out the study group had the test answers, that was kind of hard.”
Winfrey says that was her first lesson—to find a study group. She did, and in her last year, retook the course and got As on the tests.
After graduating in 2006, she went to work for Gate Gourmet, an airline catering company, as a safety supervisor doing safety audits and checks. She found out quickly this was not for her.
In 2007, walking through a Chicago neighborhood one day, she knocked on the door of a Paschen job site trailer in the middle of constructing a public transportation train line station—the CTA Brown Line. She set up an interview with the quality control manager and was hired.
Winfrey was in charge of documenting changes in the drawings and data as the project progressed. And while the 15-member Paschen crew on site that Winfrey considered “family,” the contractors and sub-contractors—mostly always male—were another story.
“A lot of it has to do with their idea that you don’t belong,” says Winfrey, who has been promoted several times in her 12 years at Paschen. “People don’t know what a construction worker looks like and if you don’t fit the mode, it’s more like a power dynamic that is off.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women in construction are 3.1 percent of the total workforce, and there is a 95.7 percent gender pay gap in construction for women. In 2016, there were 939,000 women in construction in this country, out of a total of 10.3 million construction workers.
“Over the past 10 years, the National Association of Women in Construction says the industry has seen a steady increase in the number of women employed. Although only an estimated 9.1 percent of the construction industry is made up of women, that number is on the rise, and for good reason. Following the lead of other industries, the construction world is starting to understand the benefits of a diverse employee base,” writes Ciara Seger in Engineering News-Report.
Like Paschen, ”More and more companies are creating dedicated leadership programs and providing a positive atmosphere for their female team members. Participants in these programs are encouraged to share challenges and successes in the field and embrace mentorship opportunities—inspiring one another to achieve what was rarely possible a few short decades ago. In addition to privately funded programs, women across the country have formed their own support channels, offering additional networking and development opportunities for industry peers,” Seger writes.
“Organizations like the National Association of Women in Construction and Women in Construction Operations are dedicated to the success and advancement of women within the industry, creating a community for one another with dedicated chapters across the country,” according to Seger.
Winfrey knows firsthand the challenges of being a woman, and a person of color in an industry dominated by males.
Winfrey explains that on one project, “I had to write requests for information and the mason came in and said he wanted to see the guy to write the requests.” When she was introduced, the mason said, ”Let me explain how you do this.” She said she didn’t need his explanations.
“It’s more like they are not expecting you to know what you know,” says Winfrey. When you do not fit “their idea of a construction worker, then sometimes it is a pleasant or unpleasant surprise,” she says.
One of her roles is as a liaison to high school students at George Westinghouse College Prep who are in the Paschen Scholars program, working with students to enhance STEM skills and opportunities.
“I want to see more people take a chance on construction,” Winfrey says. “It’s a lucrative career and every day you’re building and improving on infrastructures, you’re making a mark on your community. I have a great job in a great industry.”
To best maximize her leadership effectiveness, Winfrey says she follows these strategies, offering them as tips to women launching or maintaining a career in construction and engineering.
Know what your worth is. ”Sometimes people look to others for that. I’ve learned not to haver someone else tell me what my worth it.”
Maintain professionalism. “I am not stooping to their level. Even if someone is not maintaining professionalism, I am. You have a job to do, regardless of who wants you there or not.”
No blame. “When you have money and time on the line, it’s easy to blame and to get emotional. But it’s difficult to move forward in that frame of mins You still have work to get done.”
Revisit your goals. “I have a new goal in mind every five years. I have already hit that milestone. My next goal is I want to be a senior project manager. After that, one of the guys in a corner office. Sometimes you don’t hit your goal but you can still strive for it.”
Having worked on many major construction projects in Chicago, Winfrey says she loves her job and that the best part about what she does became apparent recently.
“My 98-year-old grandmother was in Chicago for a wedding and I was able to take her to three of the projects I worked on. She was able to see what I do.”
And as for her 17-month-old son, Rudy, he is too young to take to a construction site, but she will soon enough.
“I know the work I do is improving someone else’s life,” Winfrey says. “My name is not on anything, but I had input on the end users in so many ways.”
And oh, yes, when she meets someone new, about 75 percent of the time people think she is related to Oprah. And like her namesake, she loves what she does.
About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com