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Women in Construction: They’re Here to Stay

With the labor shortage only beginning to hit its peak, let’s look at an often forgotten or ignored segment of the population that can help alleviate some workforce worries—women. This article is about female leaders in the wall and ceiling construction industry, all of whom happen to be members of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry.

Now before you flip the page to see if the next article might be “better,” let’s talk about what this article is not about.

It is not about how women make less money than men. Yes, that’s still an issue, but women’s-to-men’s earnings ratios were higher among women employed in the construction industry (92 percent) than among women employed in other services (72 percent) and financial activities (71 percent), according to 2009 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It is definitely not about a lack of respect for women on the job site—because they’re getting it. “We have regular customers and many new accounts that don’t seem to think twice about the fact that we are woman owned,” says one of the women we interviewed. “I and many others have worked hard to get the respect we deserve,” says another.

This article also isn’t going to examine the prehistoric mentality that a woman’s place is in the home. In 2009, women accounted for 46.8 percent of the total labor force, and that number is projected to grow.

And finally, this article is not about how tough it is for a woman to make it in a man’s world. The fact is, these women have made it. Let’s meet them now.

The Players

Alisa Cahill Henderson has been president of Duncan & Cahill, Inc. for six years. A general contracting business located in Troy, N.Y., the company has been in business 80 years and employs about 20 tradesmen. Henderson has worked at the company since 1977, when she started as a temporary employee. In addition to being an AWCI member, Duncan & Cahill also belongs to the Eastern Contractors Association, where Henderson has served as president and is currently on its board of directors.

Connie Leipard is co-owner/president/treasurer of Quality Drywall Construction, Columbia, Mo. Founded in 1979, Quality Drywall Construction started as a residential and multifamily-unit contractor but in 1985 began work in the commercial sector by adding cold-formed steel framing and acoustical ceiling systems in addition to drywall installation. Leipard is a member of the National Association of Women in Construction, the Builders Association of Kansas City (Central MO Division) and the Associated Builders and Contractors. She is the current national treasurer for the NAWIC and former NAWIC director of Region 6, which includes Missouri, Kansas and part of Illinois.

Christine Donaldson Boccia is executive manager at Donaldson Traditional Interiors in Huntington Station, N.Y., a 17-year-old contracting company that specializes in acoustics, drywall, lath, plaster, ornamental plaster and specialty ceilings. When economic conditions were tough in 2011, Boccia’s leadership led to company revenues that more than doubled the previous years’ revenues, and a client list that doubled as well. Before she was even in the industry for two years, Boccia won the Women’s Business Council’s 2009 Championship Award, which is given to the top eight candidates of more than 100 presented as outstanding women in business. Also, after 93 years without a female on its board, Boccia became the first woman to be named to the board of directors of the Association of Wall-Ceiling & Carpentry Industries of New York, Inc.

Nancy Brinkerhoff is CEO/president of Ironwood Commercial Builders, Inc., a commercial building contractor specializing in cold-formed metal framing, drywall, taping, fireproofing, lath and plaster that Brinkerhoff started seven years ago. In addition to being on the AWCI board of directors, Brinkerhoff is secretary/treasurer of Wall And Ceiling Alliance and president of the Bay Area Builders Exchange. She is also a member of the NAWIC and several other local groups.

How It Started

How did these women end up with not just a job but a career in construction? In most cases, it started with family.

“I used to tease my dad that it should be “Donaldson & Daughters” because there are more girls in the family,” says Boccia, who started working in the family business in 2000 but took over the management of it when her father died suddenly in April 2007. At that time, the idea was to either run the company or sell it. Within a year, Boccia was hooked. “I guess you could say construction was in my blood,” she says.

Henderson’s family business meant she always had a summer job when she was in high school, and although she enjoyed it, she says, “I really didn’t take it seriously until I was out of college and working part time with a baby.” Once she took it seriously, she worked her way up and was chosen as president by her father.

Leipard grew up in the business, too. “Construction has always been part of my life,” she says. “Many family members were either construction workers or small construction business owners. I married into the industry as well. My husband and I are business partners.” Her husband was groomed at an early age as a drywall finisher, and they started their company soon after they married. “My contribution to the business was financial, record keeping, which grew exponentially to include other areas over the years,” she says.

Brinkerhoff is the exception. She was a stay-at-home mother who dreamed of owning a construction company. When her oldest child graduated high school, that’s exactly what she did. “It was a strategy to be woman owned,” she says. “There are virtually a handful of woman-owned union contractors nationwide in the drywall/plaster industry, thus narrowing the competition. There are many projects that require woman owned. It is an advantage women need to survive in construction at this point.”

WBE: An Unfair Advantage?

Perhaps it is necessary for survival, but does a Women’s Business Enterprise certification give an unfair advantage to women? They’ll generally tell you that it doesn’t, it’s just a part of doing business.

In fact, getting that certification is a process in itself. “We sent in a 4-inch binder filled with every one of the 25 items requested,” says Henderson. “I put it together by myself with our bookkeeper. Later I found out another contractor hired someone to do it for $4,000!”

And now that she has the certification? “It hasn’t made a big difference to us personally,” Henderson says. “We were already established before we became woman owned. There are many woman-owned businesses in the area, so there isn’t a huge incentive for companies to use us. They are looking for MBEs.”

Donaldson and Leipard don’t see being a WBE as an advantage because they know it’s all about the quality of your work, not the plaques and certificates that hang on your office walls.

“I honestly have just recently gotten any work or even bid a project just because someone had to satisfy the WBE goal,” Donaldson says. “All in all, it might get you in the door, but a minority status is only as good as the work that your company does to get the next invite back.”

Leipard says the WBE status can help, but “only if you have a competitive bid. Price is king, WBE or not. Price is secondary to the ability to perform the work. WBE status can be a nightmare to the general contractor or owner if the WBE can’t perform the job.”

Brinkerhoff, on the other hand, says the WBE got her company through the economic downturn. “We were able to partner with bigger firms (supplying the diversification on required projects) that they needed to land the jobs,” she says. “We became a very marketable company because we self-performed all the work.”

It’s Not a Competition

So if the WBE doesn’t give anyone an edge, let’s assume everyone is operating on a level playing field. If the players on the field are men and women, does one sex have any kind of advantage over the other when it comes to construction? How do the two groups differ on the job site?

Donaldson thinks the men definitely have the advantage. “This business is mostly built on relationships,” she says, “and it’s more difficult for a woman to ask a group of guys to go to a ballgame or out for drinks or to other venues without them feeling awkward or worrying about other innuendos.”

Leipard doesn’t believe either sex has the advantage. She says we need both. She does note, however, that “women seem to have the ability to multitask more efficiently and can be highly organized.”

Henderson says women pay more attention to the fine points, and they have a different perspective on what things will look like when they’re complete. Women also tend to be less messy, and that’s her preference.

Brinkerhoff puts it simply: “If you’re good at what you do, it doesn’t matter.”

So if the playing field and the players are relatively level and equal, does that mean things have changed since these women began their construction careers? Absolutely.

According to the women we spoke with, women are more accepted and respected in construction than they used to be.

Says Leipard, “Women used to be a ‘novelty’ or ‘token’ on the job site. Even if you were an accepted part of a construction office staff, you weren’t necessarily considered an expert in the chosen trade associated with your job. Now, women are considered a normal part of the construction process. If you perform well, you are considered an expert.”

Donaldson adds, “As a WBE company, many assume you are the face of your husband’s or father’s company. But people are now accepting there are legitimate women-owned and women-run companies out there.”

When asked about challenges and specific parts of the job, the women answer the same way men would. For example, their least favorite part of the job? Contracts. Regulations. Other trades that don’t stick to the schedule. Paperwork. Prequalifications. Favorite part of the job? Seeing the final project. Building relationships. The employees. Learning something new. Many men would give the exact same answers.

And the advice they have been given over the years probably sounds similar to what many men have heard, too.

The best business advice that Brinkerhoff received came from her father-in-law: “Be honest in your dealings.”

Henderson’s best advice was “Keep track of your jobs; check your financials regularly so you know how your jobs are doing,” which came from her father, and “Keep foremen up-to-date on job tracking, the schedule, etc.,” which was advice from her accountant.

Donaldson’s best advice was to listen, while Leipard was told to “run the numbers.”

“Being successful is always about the numbers, knowing them and staying in constant communication with what your costs are—one vital key to success in construction,” Leipard says. “This advice came early in my business career from a wise accountant who specialized in construction accounting.”

What’s the Difference?

Now that we have established that men and women are—for all intents and purposes—equally matched in the construction business, let’s look at how we achieved this level of equality. Did change happen organically, or have these women changed things about themselves to be successful in this male-dominate industry?

Leipard had to become more willing to “accept criticism, shall we say, in less than ‘politically correct’ terms without getting hurt or angry.” She says, “I have learned to listen to the message, not the way in which it was delivered. In the same vein, I have learned to listen for merit, no matter who was delivering the message.”

But there is nothing about herself that she would change to fit into a male-dominated industry. She would never “apologize for bringing a feminine viewpoint to a construction meeting,” she says. “Women are consumers of construction projects and should be involved in all stages of the construction process.”

Donaldson’s approach was to get more direct and more confident in approaching men, yet she wishes she had even more confidence. “You can’t earn their respect without actively pursuing a conversation or business deal,” she says. “They will not approach a woman, or they think you are there with your husband’s company.”

Henderson says she hasn’t changed too much: “I have always been a pretty serious person, not too flamboyant. I serve on a builders’ organization board, past president (first and only woman president); I think they like having a woman’s opinion on things.”

But she says she would never change who she is as a person, which includes traits of honesty and forthrightness. “I’m not afraid to speak my mind,” she says.

Finally, Brinkerhoff changed to allow more marketing in her life. “Marketing, marketing, marketing,” she says. “If they don’t know who you are, you will never get where you need to be.” Yet she will never change her can-do attitude. She says she will “get the job done, no matter what philosophy.”

OK, so maybe women have helped the change along by adapting their personal style somewhat, but the industry itself has changed since they began their construction careers. What is the biggest change they have seen since their careers began?

Leipard first cites government regulations and increased liability to own a construction business. Another change is the shortage of skilled workers.

Henderson is seeing fewer details in plans, more women in the field and more paperwork required for everything. “Architects expect you to take on structural design elements as part of your work,” she says.

Brinkerhoff notices the change in the number of females in the industry: “I do think that woman-owned construction companies are making ground and being taken more seriously. We do know what we are doing. I have seen a change—myself being president of WACA for the next three years is huge in our industry. It has never been done.”

Donaldson was unfortunate to start in the industry just before the recession hit, so she “saw the drastic change in the work available and the margins that it took to get any work at all. You were basically working at times just to keep the doors open and food on the table.”

Imagine: You start working in the construction industry, at your own company, at a time when the economy is tanking, and you manage to keep your company afloat during the worst of it. In the end, you find you really like the work and the challenges it brings in spite of what the economy is doing, and you want to keep doing it. That’s a sure sign that you have what it takes to be successful taking on a career in construction—no matter what sex you are.

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