It is through challenging the status quo that we can defeat this misconception of construction as a male-dominated field, and provide everyone – regardless of gender – boundless opportunities to grow into leaders of the industry.
Being a woman in construction has its challenges, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. From inspecting the smallest intricacies of any open ceiling I could find, to eyeing the cranes that tower beyond the barricaded sites of recently-built skyscrapers along the Las Vegas strip – I have always had an inherent interest and passion for the construction industry. Even from a young age, I know that growing up in this special city has allowed me to witness the impact construction can have on transforming the world around us. Constant upgrades and renovations, new buildings and new developments, and the ever-increasing need to integrate technology within spaces to improve human experience around my changing hometown, all have exposed me to the treasure that is a career in construction. However, I have witnessed firsthand as a woman in construction that I am in the minority, outnumbered by my male counterparts and without a vast number of women professionals who have come before me. How can we, as women in construction, make our mark on this industry? I have some ideas.
Professional associations like the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) provide women with opportunities for networking, education, leadership training, and more.
Where are all the women?
I got my first taste of the industry when entering a technical high school program focused on architectural drafting and design. The academy allowed for frequent construction site walks and hands-on interaction with professionals in the industry. Despite finding a career path that matched my passion, it wasn't until those experiences that I realized the lack of women representation, especially women of color that looked like me, within core business functions across the various companies I met. The same themes were true during college while studying architectural engineering in undergrad, and while pursuing a graduate degree in project management, with a lack of female professors leading the construction courses. I found myself wondering, where were all the women?
In today's society, a woman in construction is unique, providing equally unique challenges in navigating, and building a long-term career. However, it is through identifying and overcoming these challenges that we can help to transform an industry that helps transform the world. According to Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population survey results, women only make up approximately 10 percent of the construction industry, whereas women of color account for less than 1 percent.* As a young woman of color in this industry, I possess a distinct experience that provides for a greater chance to be the "Only one" in the room. While the stereotype of the male-led construction workforce might have had some truth in the past, the industry is starting to move in a different direction, starting with bold women like myself willing to join the club.
"Buildings will top out and construction projects will finish; being part of an industry-wide transformation that accepts women, makes it all worth it."
I'm not the 'only' one
I will never forget the first project I got to run as my own. My first project was a small industrial retrofit for a demanding, old school-style business in a small town in Virginia. We wanted quick but dependable solutions, so I found myself in most meetings leading a group of men twice my age, vying for their respect and the support of my ideas to get the job done successfully. Some might think of construction and construction workers as "The Boys' Club," filled with grimy workers in hard hats taking on hard, laborious tasks – but this stereotype isn't completely true. It's no secret that construction is a male-dominated field, but again, where are all the women? I'll tell you.
As a woman in construction, I will tell you that being a woman can have its perks within the construction world.
First off – it's easy to walk into a meeting or safety stand down and pick out the other 'Onlys' in the group, connecting with them, and sharing real delight in the opportunity to work together. Having a network of women has been paramount to working through the various gender-specific encounters that I – and many other women in the workforce – have faced in the field. As evidenced in my first project, and as I see it today, this network I have built over the years, although small, provides a means of mentorship and community amongst women. Through connections, we can create and grow our own business networks in shared circles of coworkers and friends with the inherent understanding of what it means to be a thick-skinned woman in the field. However, I know that not all women have the luxury of this network. To those women, you are not the 'Only' one.
While the stereotype of the male-led construction workforce might have had some truth in the past, the industry is starting to move in a different direction, starting with bold women like myself willing to join the club.
A strong need for women leaders & mentors in construction
With women just beginning to leave their stamp in this realm, men exceedingly hold core business positions at the top in middle management and C-suite positions. Honestly, the only way to overcome this challenge (as I have seen in mine and other women's careers) is through emphasizing the need for leadership development from within.
As an 'Only' in this traditionally male-dominated space, I've realized that navigating this industry as a woman is not an easy task. I leaned on my female mentors for their insight, employing male mentors as allies to better my own leadership skills, and in turn, making a positive impact on the public perception of a woman's place on construction teams. The mentor I connected with then provided the wisdom and confidence boost I needed to take the challenge head-on, offering her own personal, practical experience in dealing with tough clients whom also required extra validation from women. With mentorship like this, and the support from our male allies within the industry, we can find the 'Onlys' in the field, and help them make the crucial decisions necessary to grow in their careers. Buildings will top out and construction projects will finish; being part of an industry-wide transformation that accepts women, makes it all worth it.
I challenge all women in the industry and those thinking of joining to tackle these and the many obstacles that may come along the way.
It is my hope that in boldly choosing to be a woman in construction, I can serve as an inspiration to my peers by showing that the construction industry has a place for those with passion. If you want to change the world for the better, those with grit will push through the toughest problems. It is through challenging the status quo that we can defeat this misconception of construction as a male-dominated field, and provide everyone – regardless of gender – boundless opportunities to grow into leaders of the industry.
*survey conducted by United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (2017)
Madison Johnson is Project Manager for Southland Industries' Mid-Atlantic Division. Madison has extensive experience in full life-cycle construction of mechanical systems in the Mission Critical, Federal, and Industrial/Manufacturing sectors, as well as prefabrication/Lean planning, engineering coordination, construction processes, and commissioning.