Women in the Construction Industry

If you walked by the Capitol Crossing construction site recently, you would have noticed that the sidewalks on all four sides of 200 Massachusetts Avenue are now complete. You would have also seen window washers moving down the sides of the building, preparing it for its first tenant. The American Petroleum Institute, the national trade organization for the oil and natural gas industry, will occupy about 75,000 square feet across the top two floors of the building. The build-out for the suites began this week and A.P.I hopes to move in around the end of the year. Before they actually move in, final inspections and commissioning and training exercises are continuing; the remaining punch list items are being addressed; and the signage packages, now awaiting fabrication and delivery, will be installed. Meanwhile, the garage under the north tower is nearly ready to receive the cars of tenants.

As 200 Massachusetts Avenue enters its final stages of readiness, the business of completing the twin towers of 250 Massachusetts Avenue speeds up. The glass curtainwalls have been hung up to the 9th floor on several sides of the north tower. The tower itself was topped out during the last week of June, leading to a topping out celebration on June 30. An American flag hung from a crane boom (a topping out ceremony tradition) as one hundred and fifty workers celebrated with a long lunch, souvenir t-shirts, and a raffle. You can read more about topping out traditions in an earlier Construction Note at https://medium.com/construction-notes/topping-off-1-18-2017-cf7341cd113.

The view from the top of 250 Massachusetts Avenue is exciting, whether one is viewing the neighboring 200 Massachusetts Avenue building, the panoramic view of the city, or the deep pits of the South and Center block garages.

By the way, you may have noticed that there are now three Tower cranes on the site. The third crane was necessary to carry loads farther to the south. All three continue to lift materials from one area of the site to another and distribute concrete to the decks and columns of the building. While passersby can easily view the upper portions of the crane, the picture on the left above provides a look at its lowest levels.

Work inside 250 Massachusetts Avenue continues on various tasks on each floor. Mechanical rooms, electrical closets, and fire alarm closets are being fitted out, sometimes with colorful panels that will control the air, light, heat, and cooling throughout the building. Air handlers and chillers are installed as are pipes and pumps to circulate water. Airplane engine-size fans stand ready to clear the air. You can read more about mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems in an earlier Construction Note at https://medium.com/construction-notes/the-things-you-will-never-see-mechanical-electrical-and-plumbing-systems-bfd061627209. Ceilings are being closed in on some floors while light fixtures and sprinkling systems are being installed on others. Electric closets are being framed on several floors and bathrooms are being water-proofed. Tile finishing is ongoing in bathrooms on several floors.

Drywall gets hung by men on stilts and duct-work lines the ceilings and the shafts. Outside, a topping slab has been poured in the pedestrian plaza to the east of 250 Massachusetts Avenue. Some of you have been wondering when the sidewalk on the south side of Massachusetts Avenue will be reopened. Its closure was required for safety purposes as windows are being installed. Sometime next week, a temporary walkway will be placed in the street in front of 250 Massachusetts Avenue that will connect to the actual sidewalk in front of 200 Massachusetts Avenue. So please stop walking in the median strip.

With the north tower of 250 Massachusetts Avenue topped out, concrete workers are now concentrating on the south tower and the three-floor connecting-section between the buildings. The connecting-section is now topped out and concrete has been poured up to the ninth floor on the south tower. Reshores have been removed from the connector and through the fifth floor of the south tower. The P-1 parking level in the Center Block should be completed by next weekand the P-0 level should be completed by the end of September. The lower levels of the garages under the south tower and the connector are currently being fitted out with light fixtures, fire suppression systems, conduit for the electrical systems, and risers and pipes for plumbing. Rooms for switchgear, electrical equipment, and generators are being built.

In several earlier Construction Notes, I have mentioned the difficulties attendant to excavating this site, especially the Center and South blocks. The proximity to the rear or side of buildings along 3rd Street, the uneven property line, and the need to reinforce the foundations of the Holy Rosary Church campanile all make the support for the excavation (the pile locations and types and the lagging) intricate and difficult to install. Nonetheless, the excavation for Center and South Block garages has nearly reached its final depth. Remnants of the old highway exit ramp remain, but they should be demolished soon. Lagging continues between some piles, and the bracing of the south end of the retaining wall behind 501 3rd Street is half-way completed. Wells continue to pump out the sub-surface water and under-slab drains are being installed. Depending on the weather, the entire excavation of the site should be bottomed out by the end of December. The storms during last two weeks, however, have delayed the progress. Almost four feet of water collected at the bottom of the pit, half-submerging a Bobcat earth-mover at the bottom. When the excavation is complete, work on the south garage will begin. BBC projects that foundation work will start sometime in January of 2019 and that the garage will be completed in August.

I became interested in the role of women in the construction industry when I met Rebecca Nordby, Vice President for Operations at Balfour Beatty Construction (BBC). She is responsible for the construction operations of the Capitol Crossing project. Directing operations for this project is a demanding task. The project is complex, with many different sub-projects going on at the same time. It is clear to everyone on the project that Ms. Nordby is extremely knowledgeable and well respected by her team. In addition to her, five other women from the BBC team are working at the site on the Capitol Crossing project. One of them is an engineer, one is an engineering intern, one manages the computer-based building information modeling (BIM) system, and two are in project accounting. STV, an engineering and architectural firm, has approximately eight women among the seventy-eight engineers working on the project. Three are engineers, four are architects, and one is a senior manager. SOM, another engineering and architectural firm working on the project, employs seven women among the twenty-two architects and engineers involved.

BBC Engineers Sarah Gambino — Summer Intern, Katie Eller — Process Manager Tabby Gold — Senior Project Engineer, Rebecca Nordby — Vice President / Operations Photo by Josh Atkins, Field Engineer

Around twenty-five people usually attend the construction update meetings that I attend. Of that number, seldom more than three women usually attend. Even fewer women are engaged in the physical work of excavation and construction. At the recent topping off ceremony for the north tower of 250 Massachusetts Avenue, for example, there were only two or three women, other than those working directly with BBC, among the one hundred and fifty workers attending.

The construction industry, like most of the so-called heavy industries, has long been dominated by men. The reasons historically given for the predominance of men in the construction workforce by those responsible for hiring decisions — the differences in physical strength of men and women and the traditional family role that women have occupied in our society — have been joined by more modern explanations regarding lack of interest. A 2014 study, however, showed that the lack of interest came from a lack of professional female networks, low rate of advancement opportunities, non-supportive supervisors and coworkers, and lower salaries, not because of a lack of general interest in the work. Of course, posters of Rosie the Riveter and the need to fill the labor workforce as men went off to fight during World War II demonstrated the inadequacy of all of those explanations.

Rosie the Riveter, the Poster and Naomi Parker Fraley, the Real Life Inspiration; Photo by Karen Mizoguchi, Jan. 22, 2018

The United States government’s propaganda campaigns compared women entering the workforce to the men serving in support of the war. They were especially effective in persuading women to serve their country. Industrial employers welcomed women into the workforce to replace the male workers who left to fight overseas, but they seldom welcomed them on equal footing. The number of women in the workforce grew from ten million in 1941 to eighteen million in 1944. Despite women’s increased presence in the workforce, traditional gender stereotypes of women as domesticated home-bound wives were, obviously, never fully eliminated. Discriminatory gender norms continued to emphasize the subordinate status of women, even as they entered jobs traditionally staffed by men, by focusing on the similarities between housework and factory work. For example, job instruction manuals noted how operating a drill press was similar to squeezing orange juice and how cutting airplane parts was similar to cutting a dress.

World War II also created a need for women to fill in the ranks of the newly-created Navy Seabees and the Civil Engineer Corps. Ensign Kathleen F. Lux, an engineering graduate from Purdue University, became the first female Civil Engineer Officer in the Navy. She entered the Naval Reserve on November 28, 1942, and trained at U.S. Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School in Northampton, Massachusetts. After she received her commission, Lux served as an assistant in the Construction Department under the command of Commodore C. P. Conrad. Women entered the construction trade not only in the U.S., but also abroad. In England, around 25,000 women were working in construction towards the end of the war. Some were vitally important during the building of the iconic London Bridge.

Ultimately, the war effort had a dramatic effect on the gender makeup of the workforce. Nonetheless, the war did not end gender stereotypes. Despite the growth in the number of women in the construction-based work force, the dominant culture continued to perceive them as unsuited for work that involved physical labor. That belief remains in some sectors of the economy today. But even if one accepts the premise that, on average, women are less physically strong than their male counterparts, there are many tasks in the construction industry that do not require great physical strength. Not everyone in the industry is a carpenter, bricklayer, plumber, concrete worker, or heavy equipment operator. Developers, marketers, accountants, computer specialists, building managers, engineers, architects, and lawyers are all part of the industry. But even these professions remain heavily male-dominated. Moreover, there is seldom a real reason tied to physical stature that prevents a woman from performing as well as a man in most labor trades.

Few women obtained jobs at the core of the construction industry — laborers, architects, and engineers — during the first half of the twentieth century. Based on the pervasive idea that they were unsuited for physical labor, women seldom found work in the laboring trades. Colleges that admitted women to degree programs often denied them admission to engineering or architecture schools. After World War II, women who sought employment in the construction industry were often denied work despite their service during the War. Those already employed in the industry were often pressured or persuaded to leave their jobs by campaigns advocating that women go back to domesticated life.

Today, women make up approximately nine percent of the construction industry. Within the industry itself, 3.3 percent of supervisors, 2.9 percent of laborers, 5.7 percent of painters, construction, and maintenance workers, and 6.7 percent of construction site managers are women. A study conducted in 2013 and published in 2014 by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) found that there are significantly fewer women of color than Caucasian women in the construction industry.

Photo from the Niagara Construction Assn.

Many reasons are proffered to explain why women are underrepresented in the construction workforce, especially in the labor trades. The fast pace and rigid schedule of the construction industry results in employers with limited sympathy for workers who have to miss work or do not have proper tools or clothing. Lack of transportation, discriminatory apprenticeship programs, and an inability to afford equipment are barriers that often prevent women from gaining employment in the construction trades. Jason Parkin, writing in the Columbia Law Review in 2004, noted that women can have trouble finding tools appropriate for their size and clothing suitable for women at a construction site. Additionally, transportation may become a barrier for women who are primary child caretakers, especially when they have to coordinate child care and other family related matters. Moreover, harassment, the gender-based societal assignment of child care needs primarily to mothers, outright discrimination in terms of advancement and pay, and the intermittent nature of work cause women to leave the construction workforce rather than maintain lifetime careers.

Unlike other industries, jobs in the construction industry are often temporary and the needs of construction employers fluctuate depending on the nature of particular projects. This has led to the development of union hiring halls and apprenticeship programs to provide employers with a steady flow of trained and available workers. Unions which run these hiring halls and apprenticeships have historically been comprised almost exclusively of males, a gender inequality that can contribute to women’s difficulties in finding employment in the construction industry. Many women in the halls find that they are not referred to jobs as often as men, that their discrimination and harassment grievances are ignored, and that they receive inadequate training. The 2014 study by the NWLC found that women are still underrepresented in construction apprenticeship programs and that women overall are less likely than men to complete their apprenticeships. Nonetheless, courts have been reluctant to hold unions liable for discrimination unless the actions are sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of employment or create an abusive working environment.

Photo from the Toronto Women in Construction

It is generally believed that male construction workers are notorious for hazing, foul language, intimidation, and sexual harassment. There is, of course, no excuse for this type of behavior. But it seems a little unfair and perhaps classist to generalize and say that these behaviors are the exclusive province of construction workers. The men in construction are like men in all other industries –some are the good guys and some are the bad guys. In practice, however, women in the construction industry have been verbally intimidated or laughed at when they pick up a construction tool, told that a particular task can only be done by a man, or called “honey” while on site. Indeed, a 2014 article in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, & Public Policy described far worse insults and cases of rape and other instances of sexual assault in addition to harassment in the industry. Eighty-eight percent of women in the construction industry reported that they have faced some form of harassment. A 2015 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that 31 percent of women say that sexual harassment is a constant or frequent experience at work. Thirty-two percent of respondents of color indicated that they were subject to frequent occurrences of racial harassment and discrimination.

Women on the job deal with it in different ways. Some refocus and redirect inappropriate questions or reframe the conversation; some struggle through the events; some take the initiative and respond or report it. But doing one’s job and doing it well is often not enough. According to Rebecca Nordby, who has been in the industry for more than twenty years, how one handles the hostile environment has a generational aspect. Although it is always difficult to generalize, in her experience, older workers are more likely to ignore harassment while the younger generation of workers is less willing to endure it. She believes that how one handles these unseemly events involves personal voice and safety on the part of the women and support by the men and women in supervisory positions. Personal voice involves personal choice, but safety is paramount.

For many reasons, many employers in the construction industry have taken steps to reduce sexual harassment. They have adopted anti-harassment procedures, such as allowing employees to submit confidential reports. While conducting exit interviews, some employers specifically ask about harassment in order to identify potential or on-going harassment. BBC, for example, has a code of conduct for their employees and has anti-harassment policies that comply with the law. Their subcontractors also address these issues and approach the incidents with zero tolerance when appropriate. Workers can be removed from the site permanently for certain types of harassing behavior. BBC and the developers of Capitol Crossing entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Georgetown Law to ensure their policies would protect us as neighbors in addition to their employees. Other employers have also implemented voluntary mediation or binding arbitration procedures to resolve factual disputes and to take affirmative steps to correct sexual harassment in the workplace. Nonetheless, the problems remain.

The construction industry generally finds more civil, architectural, and mechanical engineers among its ranks than other engineering specialties. Engineers play a vital role in the construction industry and are primarily responsible for translating a client’s needs into actual plans for construction. Although the impediments that deter women from entering the labor force also exist in the engineering sector of the industry, women seem to be entering the engineering profession more readily than they once did. Even though more women are being trained and educated in engineering, they are still, however, underrepresented in the actual workforce. A study in 2014 found that there was a 19 percent rise in the proportion of females gaining an engineering education. But while more women are graduating with engineering degrees, nearly 40 percent of these women either quit the profession or never enter the field at all. This lower rate of women seeking employment in engineering has had an effect. Only 21.4 percent of engineering technicians (except drafters), 21.4 percent of industrial engineers, 20.7 percent of computer hardware engineers, 19.8 percent of chemical engineers, 10 percent of civil engineers, 9.6 percent of electrical engineers, and 7.2 percent of mechanical engineers are women. Women who entered but left the general engineering workforce reported that the causes of their departures, similar to those of the labor workforce, are employment discrimination, non-supportive supervisors and coworkers, hostile work environments, unwanted sexual advances and assaults, and lower salaries. Moreover, the absence of professional female networks and a low rate of advancement opportunities also discourage women from entering the workforce and pave the way for leaving it.

There are an inadequate number of female role models and professional female networks in the engineering field, a fact that helps to explain the dearth of women. There are many notable exceptions, however, reaching back to the 1870s. Elizabeth Bragg was the first woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in engineering. She earned her degree in civil engineering from the University of California at Berkeley in 1876; however, she became a wife and mother and never worked as a professional engineer. The Society of Women Engineers noted that “Julia Morgan [in 1894] graduated from U. C. Berkeley’s College of Mechanics with a degree in engineering. She became an architect who designed more than 700 buildings in California. That same year,

Bertha Lamme graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in mechanical engineering… [but] From the turn of the century until the first world war, only a handful of women received an engineering degree in any given year.” The Society also noted that Emily Roebling, an “engineer” without formal training, helped complete the Brooklyn Bridge. Her father-in-law, John A. Roebling, started design work on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1867. His son, Washington Augustus Roebling, became the chief engineer for the project after his father died from tetanus after having his foot crushed while setting the location for the Bridge. The younger Roebling was also injured while working on the Bridge.

Bertha Lamme-Feucht (Photo from Ohio State Univ. Col. of Engineering) | Julia Morgan (Photo from the Biography “Julia Morgan, Architect” by Sara Holmes Boutelle (Abbevill Press)
Emily Warren Roebling (Library of Congress, Everett Collection)

The foundations for the Bridge towers were laid using water-tight chambers that sunk down below the river where excavation occurred. Unfortunately “caisson disease,” now known as nitrogen narcosis, afflicted many members of the Bridge work force. Roebling, after spending twelve hours in the compressed-air chamber,

collapsed. Unlike his father, he didn’t die but he remained incapacitated for the rest of his life. Because the Bridge was not complete, Emily took over and completed the project in 1883. Augustus remained the chief engineer but Emily was in reality the chief engineer, using her knowledge of materials strength, stress analysis, and cable construction that she learned while working alongside her husband. There are other early female engineers, some famous and some who just did their jobs and lived their lives; but few females were permitted to achieve success in the field.

There are modern women legends of engineering and construction as well. When Business Insider named its forty-three most powerful women engineers for 2017, it included Barbara Rusinko, executive vice president of construction giant Bechtel’s Nuclear, Security & Environmental business unit and president of Bechtel National, its U.S. government services arm. She leads a multibillion dollar business of engineering and construction projects for the U.S. government, ranging from national security to environmental cleanup. Maria Thompson, a Vice President of Construction at PN Hoffman, has more than twenty years of experience in construction. Barbara Wagner, senior vice president of Clark Construction, has over twenty-eight years of experience in the construction industry and is the chair of the Executive Council for the Design-Build Institute of America. Norma Sklarek, the first African-American woman to earn an architect’s license in the state of New York, was born in Harlem and graduated from Columbia University. She has been a vocal advocate for more women in the field. Katherine L. Gregory rose to the rank of Rear Admiral and Commander of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command and served as Chief of Civil Engineers in the Seabees.

Many women are voicing their opinions on what the industry can do to improve women’s underrepresentation. Katie Coulson, vice president and account manager of Skanska USA, believes that talking about what it is like to be a woman in the construction industry is important because male workers may not realize that their words and actions can create a hostile working environment. Balfour Beatty’s Rebecca Nordby is a major player in construction engineering as well. She has twenty-one years of experience leading complex construction projects. With BBC, she has worked to deliver 2101 L Street NW and the National Research Council for the National Academy of Sciences. Most notably, she was the project manager of the first phase of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. She is also in charge of college recruiting for BBC and mentors young women engineers. Tamara Rivera, the first woman council representative of the New York City District Council of Carpenters, advocates for fair wages, benefits, and opportunities for all workers in the industry. Chrystal Stowe, Director of Community Affairs and Business Development for Smoot Construction, has spent most of her career drawing new women into the construction industry and helping them find career paths. She also helped develop the District’s first pre-apprenticeship program for a large-scale construction project. There are, of course, more than those mentioned here, all paving the way for the next generation of construction industry workers.

Multiple organizations have formed to aid women in the construction industry. The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) was founded in 1953. The association operates as a support network for women in the construction industry and provides members with opportunities for professional development, education, networking, and leadership training. In addition, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), formed in 1972 to promote equality for women, works closely with the NAWIC to discover and report discrimination in the construction industry and to assist women workers. The NWLC strives to make people aware of the obstacles women face entering and staying in non-traditional fields and its President, Fatima Graves, has led several anti-discrimination initiatives. Again, of course, there are others, but more are needed.

Although role models and organizations to assist women construction workers exist, more of both are needed to bring more women workers to the industry. Despite the roadblocks women construction workers face, their integration into the workforce serves not only women themselves, but the larger industry and even the country. Gender diversity benefits companies in the construction industry by improving decision making. Diverse companies are better able to hire top talent and attract a broader range of clientele. A study in 2015 showed that public companies with a greater percentage of gender diversity in the workplace perform better financially than companies with less gender diversity. Another study found that companies with at least three or more women on the company’s board generate more revenue than companies with fewer women board members. Successful companies respond to such data. The Turner Construction Company, for example, received several awards for its commitment to diversity and has awarded more than one billion dollars to minority and women-owned subcontractors since 2005. Other major commercial construction companies, such as Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc., Fluor, and others, have adopted diversity initiatives in order to increase the representation of women in construction leadership and in the workforce.

These diversity initiatives have been accompanied by new efforts to recruit women to the construction industry. TD Industries has been recruiting people who may not have previously considered construction as a career. The organization’s first graduating class of female tradeswomen completed training in May, 2018, and the firm now has ten on-site female sheet metal mechanics. Randee Herrin, Senior Vice President of New Construction at TD Industries, recently noted that high school students need to know that “construction can be a career opportunity with benefits and good wages where people can work with their hands and have the satisfaction of completing a monument.” Herrin said she is starting to see more diversity with engineers and project managers, but the whole construction industry could benefit from more diversity.

So, this is where we are today but where do we go now and how do we do it? The first Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution was proposed in 1921. The second wave of the feminist movement began in the 1960s, a half-century ago. The modern Equal Rights Amendment was approved by the Senate in 1972 and as of this year, with the passage of a ratification bill by the state of Illinois, thirty-seven states have voted to ratify the Amendment. Federal laws exist, as do state laws throughout the country, banning employment discrimination, harassment, and sexual assault. Productivity and profit statistics show that having women on equal footing with men benefits labor, management, and shareholders. Almost one million people participated nation-wide in the Women’s Marches in 2017, and a record-breaking number of women are running for federal and state offices this year. And yet, as writer and journalist Jessica Valenti wrote in the July 25, 2018 issue of the New York Times, “One of the many political ironies of our time is that feminism’s most powerful cultural moment has coincided with the rise of extreme misogyny. While women protest, run for office and embrace the movement for gender equality in record numbers, a generation of young, mostly white men are being radicalized into believing that their problems stem from women’s progress.”

Why are gender equality and basic respect so hard to achieve? Although achieving it should be simple, centuries of culture and traditions seem to be immovable. Despite the promises of laws and the existence of seemingly shared values, we have a long way to go; but we have no choice but to get there. Failure to blot out this cultural blindness and harm will be devastating to men and women alike. So let’s get on with the business of ending these lingering vestiges of another era and start treating women with the professional and personal respect they deserve.

Wally Mlyniec


Janelle Sampana, Georgetown L’20, researched and wrote parts of this Construction Note.

Rebecca Nordby, Vice President, Balfour Beatty Construction, contributed to this Construction Note.

Rob Smythe from STV, Inc and Andrew Makin from SOM LLP provided data for this Construction Note.

Georgetown Professor Deborah Epstein consulted on and contributed to this Construction Note and helped with the editing.

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