Successful women are being propelled by help from within their firms.
While women still make up just about 9 percent of the construction industry, there are rising stars among them, and companies are taking actions to support them.
Something as simple as a female-only porta potty on the jobsite can make a big difference.
Gabrielle Robitaille, a project controls manager at Flintco, LLC, a construction company based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said her employer’s policy of installing these facilities created a comfortable environment when she was working on jobsites.
“Working on site was probably one of the biggest learning experiences of my career, and the team was really supportive of my advancement and desire to be in the trenches with everyone,” said Robitaille.
Engineering consulting firm Thornton Tomasetti has a group for women employees. Employee resource groups like this one are among the strategies construction companies are using to embrace diversity in the workforce. In 2013, senior engineer Jennifer Greenawalt created it as a vehicle for education and support. The club has mentoring and advancement committees and holds negotiation training and retreats for mid-career women to discuss barriers and opportunities.
“The architecture, engineering and construction industry is challenged by a lack of gender diversity, especially a lack of women in leadership positions,” said Greenawalt. “The group has grown from small local groups in a couple of our offices to a global employee resource group with approximately 300 active members and 17 officials with active local chapters.”
Both companies, Thornton Tomasetti and Flintco, LLC, had several employees recognized in Constructech magazine’s fifth annual list of the most successful women in the construction industry, including Robitaille and Greenawalt.
One of the women to benefit from Thornton Tomasetti’s group is Zoe McBride, a senior engineer of sustainability and another 2019 Women in Construction winner. She started at the company as an intern, during the summer before starting a master’s degree program in civil and environmental engineering. After completing her degree, she was offered a job and welcomed into the women’s group.
“It gave me a pathway to talk to other women in the field,” McBride said. “Sometimes the construction site can be a hostile place for women, so having a support group within Thornton Tomasetti has been very helpful.”
In her current role, McBride is responsible for ensuring that the company’s new construction projects meet the city’s sustainability requirements. On the research and development side, she’s working on water conservation and water reuse and developing ways to balance the water streams for new construction projects. For example, she measures a building’s projected water to determine the best way to reduce them before construction begins. Additionally, she explores how to capture water and reuse it on site.
“Sometimes the construction site can be a hostile place for women, so having a support group within Thornton Tomasetti has been very helpful.”
Having a community where she can discuss her concerns, along with the positive and negative experiences of being a woman in the construction field, has helped her feel more at ease, she said. “Knowing that I have a community and support network definitely helps,” McBride added.
At Flintco, Robitaille got a boost from the company’s tuition reimbursement program, which offers full coverage for construction-related higher education. She started in 2008 as an accounts payable clerk. In 2011, while working, she began an associate's degree program in architectural/engineering drafting technology at Central New Mexico Community College. She finished in three years, and in 2015, enrolled in an online bachelor’s program for management information systems and business analytics at Colorado State University.
“One of the policies that is really helpful is our educational assistance. I completed my degrees without any student loan debt,” said Robitaille, who earned her bachelor’s degree in 2018. “I don’t know if I would have had that opportunity without [Flintco].” She’s now responsible for managing and supporting the company-wide project management system that’s used on a daily basis to track construction activities and financials.
As women rise through the construction industry ranks, they may inspire others to follow in their footsteps. Peggy Smedley, editorial director of Constructech magazine, wrote in the awards announcement, “These forward-thinking women are aspiring for more than just a paycheck. What makes them truly stand out is how they inspire all women to persevere and are dedicated to helping the industry thrive as a whole.”
Emily Canal is a staff writer for Inc. Magazine and has previously written for Forbes Magazine, The New York Times and the Boston Globe.