Helbling has represented firms in the construction industry for over 26 years, becoming so ingrained in the market that our internal dynamics have mirrored the ebb and flow of it. As the number of women in construction-related roles continues to rise, we attempt to embody the trend at our own organization, recognizing the importance of being proactive and of creating a space that employs and empowers women.
Recently, we sponsored the annual Women in Construction (WiC) event in Washington, DC. and sent Tom Dunn and Wendy Zang to participate in the discussion. WiC brought top-notch speakers and a diverse audience aimed at increasing visibility and mentorship for women of all ages. According to Wendy, “This event never disappoints.”
I sat down with Tom, a first-time attendee, and Wendy, a 2nd-year attendee, to get their take on the experiences that were shared by speakers and participants alike.
Katie: Tom, addressing the elephant in the room from the get-go, what was your experience as a man attending a WiC event? Did you have any expectations going into it?
Tom: Prior to the event, step one was a lot of introspection to really dig into my own unconscious biases and blind-spots to evaluate my understanding (or lack thereof) of the challenges that women face in the construction industry every day. From there, any pressure or expectations fade away because I was focused on approaching the day with a listen first and talk second mentality. To me, listening first is the foundation of building trust around this issue in a male-dominated industry where women often don’t feel heard. Based on my experience there, that approach paid off and I was able to hear and learn from a lot of women and their stories that all had common threads around things that men often don’t think twice about or have to contend with. All that said, the most striking thing about the experience was the overall positivity of the event and the passion of those involved to keep sparking progress and making everyone, men and women, more aware and engaged.
Katie: That feedback is very valuable. What’s a good way for people to put that into practice throughout their career, or within their organization?
Tom: It all starts with awareness. A common story that I heard from women who were Project Managers in the field was one of being looked-over and talked around in favor of their male counterparts, oftentimes who were their subordinates on the project! Despite their authority in experience, expertise, title, and position, women felt that they were regularly devalued by male subcontractors, clients, vendors, and even at times their own colleagues. This situation and dynamic is a good frame for a highly complex issue. First, women feel torn between speaking up and being labeled as difficult, or they let it slide and feel complicit in allowing the behavior. Second, a portion of the men who do these things are acting subconsciously and never know the negative feelings they cause, and their lack of awareness keeps the pattern going. Events like WiC can be a great tool to create overall awareness that these things happen and that they have a real impact. For men, it can be a splash of cold water to the face and a mirror into your own behaviors, lack of awareness, and need to constantly be challenging “the way it’s always been done.”
Katie: With professional development dominating the conversation, Wendy, what do you think women in the construction industry should focus on?
Wendy: Confidence! So much of what was talked about at the conference, whether it was how to make sure your voice is heard or how to ask for what you want, boiled down to being confident and comfortable in your own skin. I enjoyed hearing so many women’s perspectives, and it’s obvious from the conversations we had that there’s not just one way to grow and develop in the industry – everyone needs to find what works for them. At one time, the prevailing thought was that women had to be more like men to get ahead. Today, it’s clear from listening to the women at WiC that you can find success your own way. But no matter your style, confidence seems to be the common denominator – whether that’s the confidence to go after a stretch assignment, to speak up when you are ignored in a meeting, or to provide a creative solution on a difficult project.
Katie: It’s interesting to see the perspective shift over time – from trying to ‘act like a man’ to get ahead to feeling comfortable in our own styles and abilities. From last year’s event to this year, what has stuck out in the back of your mind?
Wendy: For me, the thing that sticks out the most is how inspiring and supportive this amazing group of women are. There’s a very real feeling of being in it together, and wanting to work with other women, as well as men, to continue to empower women, break down barriers and create opportunities in the construction industry. That feeling is quite powerful, and actually speaks to your last question as it inspires confidence. I certainly left the day feeling more confident in both my own abilities and in the future of women in our industry.
Katie: It sounds like you had a very humbling experience. If there was sort of a ‘do’s and don’ts’ list, what would be considered things not to do, or to avoid, as we work on positioning more women in construction and leadership roles?
Wendy: I think the biggest thing for all of us – whether you are a potential candidate for a job, an employer looking to make a hire, or a recruiter searching for talent – is don’t assume. For female candidates, often it’s not assuming they are unqualified for a job and not being afraid to go for it even if you don’t tick every box on the job requirements twice over. Make a case on why you can do it. For employers and recruiters, it’s being aware of bias and being truly open to candidates with different styles, backgrounds and experiences.
Tom: From a man’s view, whether you are a hiring manager or recruiter, for me it all starts with the awareness we talked about above. Work hard to be aware of your own biases to avoid them from seeping into an evaluation process and skewing an outcome. Also, if I am recruiting a woman for a position, I always try to ask her about her experiences, successes, and challenges working in a male-dominated industry. It hits the issue head-on and builds trust, but it also provides a lot of insight into what has made that individual woman successful and the type of organizational culture, team, and environment that they are seeking.
Katie: As we work on attracting more women to our client’s organizations, what can construction firms do to strengthen the effort?
Tom: One impactful thing that companies can do is also incredibly simple. During an interview process, it is beneficial to expose the women whom you are recruiting to other women within your organization. It is important for prospective candidates to see a path and track record of developing and promoting talented women executives to envision themselves with your company long-term. Many women at the WiC conference expressed how these types of one-on-one or panel meetings with other women ended up elevating their interest in an opportunity, instilling confidence, and provided them a candid platform to discuss a company’s culture and challenges, and to ask open questions with other women.
Wendy: For me, the biggest thing any organization can do to attract and retain more female talent is show an interest in doing so. Don’t be shy about promoting and celebrating your diverse workforce. Show women interested in your company that you want them there. Make sure your policies reflect that commitment; decent maternity leave, equal pay, and mentorship/support. And, probably most importantly, make sure the women who are already employed by your company are thriving, are being treated with respect, and are getting the same opportunities for advancement as their male colleagues.
Katie: Very good points, thank you both for your time.
It is apparent that just having events like the WiC event empower women in ways only collective gatherings can achieve. Its mere existence indicates more time and resources are being allocated toward the recruitment and retention of females in construction-related roles, and for that we are thankful. Most of what I heard from Wendy and Tom was encouraging, and the sheer number of companies that invested in sending all of their women to this event proves that we are moving in the right direction. Thank you to everyone at WiC, and to all those who participated and spoke on behalf of all of us. See you next year!