Expect To See More Women Managers On Construction Jobs

By Olivia Just
The Stamford Advocate, Conn.

As women are being urged to “lean in” to corporate jobs, there’s another challenge for management-minded ladies: breaking the proverbial glass ceiling — with a hammer.

Working out in the field as a construction manager, Dianna Barrella likes to be the first one on the job site every morning.

She likes the ever-changing nature of the work, the variety of people she meets on each project, the opportunity to work with different teams of consultants, architects or engineers.

Over the past 16 years she’s spent at Turner Construction in Shelton — almost her entire career — Barrella has relished her roles, which have included overseeing jobs like in-house building projects at UBS in Stamford. But it took time to get there.

“When I started at Turner, I think I may have been a little intimidated, being the only girl out in the field,” Barrella said.
“But in the industry, that has changed. There’s many more women now. The challenges are pretty much the same for men and women.”

Construction has traditionally been a male-dominated business, with the small percentage of women who do join — just 8.9 percent of the industry nationwide, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor — often relegated to doing clerical or support jobs.

In Connecticut, based on the state’s demographics, it’s likely the numbers are even lower, said Jacob Kovel, associate professor and chair of the department of construction management at Central Connecticut State University.

Women in management positions at construction businesses can often start their careers with a fight to gain respect.

For MaryJean Rebeiro, president and CEO of NY-Conn in Danbury, construction was the business she grew up in, with three brothers alongside. Navigating a man’s world as a woman was a matter of course, though not without its natural challenges. She now runs NY-Conn, an electrical construction firm started in 1987, along with her younger brother, Ross Rebeiro.

“I think getting into this business is about trying to prove yourself,” Rebeiro said. “It’s being a female in a male-dominated industry. I’m challenged by it, I guess. Women don’t usually go into this field. I think it’s hard for women to break into it.”

There are slight indications, however, that a new generation, if given the right encouragement, might be gearing up to shift the dearth of women at the top of the industry.

Trade schools, the traditional feeder institutions for the construction industry, are seeing girls who are more willing and eager to sign up for classes like masonry and carpentry.

The student population at Bullard-Havens Regional Vocational Technical School in Bridgeport is over 50 percent female, and all students have full access to the same training in construction skills, said the school’s principal, Richard Cavallaro.

Freshmen have the opportunity to experience all 13 available shops in the school and pick their top 3 choices, settling into their permanent shops by January of their first year.

Bullard-Havens offers five construction-related classes: carpentry, electrical, plumbing, masonry and architectural drafting. All of them have seen fairly well-integrated groups of male and female students.

“Girls’ attitudes have changed from the past and they have the confidence that will get them into college and reach the managerial level,” Cavallo said.

Emily Brenner, from Danbury, “fell in love with building” through her experiences doing construction work in other countries, like Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, while still in high school.

She chose to study construction management at Central Connecticut State University because it’s the only college in the state that offers the major.

Now in her second year, Brenner has already gained firsthand experience as a construction worker, project manager and general contractor; while shingling a roof in Mexico, she received a job offer from one of her colleagues.

But she’s also clear-eyed about the still-difficult process of being a woman in construction.

“There are probably plenty of women who have been turned down for jobs because of their gender, but are instead given another reason as to why they were not hired just to cover up the tracks,” Brenner said.

“Voluntarily and involuntarily women are stereotyped as being weaker and at times less intelligent because that is how women have always been perceived in this world. Women will get the easier jobs to perform on site and be told not to do the heavy lifting and to let the big, strong men do it.”

At CCSU, the number of women undergraduates studying construction management has remained stagnant over the past 10 years, while the ratio of graduate-level students has skewed increasingly female, Kovel said.

He speculates that graduate classes are being filled by a growing number of women who are finding themselves in the construction industry with a different business background and are seeking additional training.

Still, construction management is not a popular choice, Kovel said.

“We get a bad rap,” he said. “When people talk about construction and aren’t in the industry, the impression they get is that it’s people laying bricks or running pipes. That’s not what we do here. Our program is a management program and a lot of people don’t understand that.”

When women are excluded from management-level jobs in construction, they’re also missing an opportunity to earn a higher living wage.

Women in construction management make “much more” than in similar positions in other industries, Kovel noted.

Contrary to the inequality between the genders in jobs held, the ratio of women’s to men’s earnings in the industry nationwide was 92 percent in 2009, the highest ratio in the country, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Construction manager is one of the best-paid positions in the industry, with a national median pay of $38.39 per hour in 2008, as numbers from Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate.

Female managers are also better qualified for jobs at construction firms than traditional perceptions might suggest.

Some of the key skills that are required for construction management jobs — dealing with customers, solving personnel issues- are those at which women particularly excel, Kovel said.

So what, if anything, is keeping women from holding many of these jobs?

Much of it comes down to encouragement, or current lack of it. Showing women both that these jobs are available and that success within them is possible could have an impact, Kovel said.

Rebeiro’s company has taken a large percentage of its 49 employees from trade schools; many have been with NY-Conn since they were 16 or 17 years old, she said. Reaching out to girls at a high school level to pique their interest in a construction management future could be a first step.

“If they had someone who came in and spoke during that training period, it might open the door for them,” Rebeiro said.

For women or men, construction management as a job choice has shown potential for advancement. The profession is expected to grow 26.1 percent by 2018, according to the state Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the construction industry growth rate nationally is projected at 18.5 percent.

“I have been told by my professors and my co-workers in construction that I will do well in this field because I am a female and a minority pursuing construction,” Brenner said.

“In the end, I believe it can be easy to spark one’s interest in construction being a female, but this does not necessarily mean that a female will more likely get hired than a male.”

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