Women in Construction Week highlights the valuable and growing role women play in the construction industry. In connection with that effort, I want to help more women enter the field and succeed. I’ve found a fulfilling career path in construction and hope my experience can pave the way for other women to do the same.
As we see more diverse representation in the construction workforce, revolutionary change lies in women supporting and mentoring women. As the saying goes, “Empowered Women Empower Women,” so here are some tips on how we can empower ourselves and pay it forward.
1. Develop confidence
The most important advice I would give myself early in my career is that confidence matters.
It took me about two years of working in construction to gain full confidence in my own voice. Before, there were times when my team would discuss a problem or exchange ideas, and I had a solution pop into my head but kept it to myself believing it wasn’t quite right. Then, 30 minutes later, the team would reach the same conclusion.
Women often believe their ideas are not worthy if they are not perfect, thought out and fully planned. Thanks to socialization, there is a significant confidence gap between women and men. Women are more likely to underestimate their abilities despite all evidence that they are overqualified and overprepared.
Developing confidence is a process, but through your hard work and experience, you can strengthen your belief that you bring value to the table. Don’t hesitate to throw an idea out there. It might just be what your team needs.
2. Break free from stereotypes
Our society still has a lot of implicit biases about men and women. I’ll emphasize the implicit aspect for a reason: it doesn’t have to be an explicit bias to affect you. Implicit (or unconscious and unintentional) bias is fueled by stereotypes in our culture and is often at odds with conscious beliefs and values.
As a woman in a male-dominated field like construction, you often need to be your own best advocate. People (including yourself) will likely make inaccurate assumptions about you that may have real ramifications for your professional life. You can also lead change by not making those same assumptions about other women.
Do not be afraid to point out implicit bias when you see or hear it. For example, I’ve used the line, “You know, I was reading an article the other day about how unconscious bias is ingrained in our culture. I feel like the words used to explain her qualifications would not be used if she were a different gender.” While you may be met with initial resistance, it opens up a conversation and possible eventual acceptance. Countering bias is HARD because most people believe they are ethical and unbiased.
Cultivating awareness about implicit bias is imperative. Talk about it.
3. Let opportunity in
Chances are you enjoy doing what you are good at; this will guide your career. Let your strengths create opportunities even if they’re not in your career “plan.” Nothing ever goes to plan anyway.
This starts with knowing your value. Society has socialized women to believe their success is due to an external attribution (e.g. it comes from luck or the help of others) instead of believing it is due to their own internal abilities, expertise and competence. This can have real consequences in a woman’s career if she doesn’t believe she earned her success. Recognize what you’ve accomplished and where you excel.
From there, don’t be afraid to walk through unexpected doors when they open. You will not grow in your career if you are not challenged. Take risks. You might find that those unexpected paths lead you to success. When opportunity knocks, answer it!
4. Build trust
Ask yourself: when you aren’t in the room, who is advocating for you? Do you trust your team to have your back?
Trust has to be earned. However, it is often formed through relationships that have little to do with work. Oftentimes, in a male-dominated field, those relationships are formed more easily when a couple of guys go golfing or to happy hour, etc. It can be more difficult for women to form these same relationships.
Seek out ways to build genuine relationships and trust with your co-workers.
- Soft Skills: Be a good team member, take ownership, communicate, honor your commitments, be dependable and tough yet understanding.
- Hard skills: Be competent. This is a tough one because research shows that women need to be 2.5 times as competent as male counterparts to be seen as “equal” to them. Advocating for the women around you can create a more equal workforce.
In short, earn trust and have each other’s back.
5. Ask questions
You can’t know everything, and no one expects you to. What keeps construction dynamic and fun is that you learn something new every day!
So beware of the ego—that voice that says, “I know everything already; there’s nothing you can teach me. I am right.” With that attitude, not only do you make more mistakes, but you miss out on excellent opportunities to build relationships with helpful mentors.
In my experience, women do a great job of leaving their egos behind. See this as an advantage to help you learn far more far quicker.
6. Set boundaries
You can’t do everything at once. Learn to delegate and prioritize. I have become the “yes woman” at times and wind up with way too many tasks. This does not help anyone.
If you are feeling overworked, communicating about your workload is key so you can prioritize the urgent items with the help of your team. If you are working late every night, no one will tell you to take a break or go home. You have to draw this line. Set your boundaries. People will respect you more for it and better value your time.
7. Be yourself
When I was right out of college, I was working almost entirely with men. Not wanting to be perceived as “too feminine,” I tried to dress like the men did. Almost every day I went into work wearing loose button-up shirts and baggy jeans. I assure you, that’s not my natural style. I’m an architect by education. I love design, and I’m invested in tasteful fashion.
Looking back at photos from that time, I ask myself, “What was I wearing? What was I thinking?”
Be genuine to your character, values and beliefs. Don’t pretend to be anything you are not. In fact, people are much more likely to trust and respect you when you are true to yourself instead of wearing some sort of mask.
(Or just baggy jeans.)
8. Empower each other
As I mentor younger women in construction, I try to be as honest as I can. I tell them that this is going to be hard, harder in many ways than it would be if they were a young man. But women have a unique opportunity to turn the page for a new generation of thinking, collaboration and mentorship in the construction industry. Remember, empowered women empower women. Let’s pave new roads to construction together!