April 25, 2019

Yes We Can!

The historically low participation of women in construction is slowly yielding to growth as stereotypes fade and awareness builds.

Tracy Garofalo will tell you that working in construction was never on her radar growing up. Secretary, waitress, painter – these were the jobs she held, switching from one to the next but not finding satisfaction. In 1989, in her twenties and unfulfilled, she applied to both the local post office and to a contractor looking for carpenters, deciding she’d go with the first offer she got. And that’s how the work she had never even considered has turned out to be a perfect-fit career.

Garofalo has always had a steady energy about her, prefers being outdoors, was a rock climber undeterred by heights and challenges, and felt satisfaction working with her hands. Beginning with an apprenticeship in 1989, and moving to O&G in 1999, she has been outside working as a journeyman carpenter ever since. “I just didn’t ever think of it before,” she says.

That could summarize the state of affairs for women in construction today: a longstanding lack of awareness is gradually giving way to the realization that women can, in fact, perform at high levels and earn a good living in the construction industry. They can, in fact, do the work that had been always assumed to be the exclusive domain of men. They can excel at work they had never considered.

“Women need to know they’re in high demand in construction.”
–Aaron Mednick, Vice President Building Division

At O&G, jobs that support the field work are numerous and often filled by women: contracts, billing and receiving, insurances, claims, human resources, IT, document control, safety and more. There are the company’s retail stores with saleswomen and counter help, and for the quarries and plants scale house operators and dispatchers and drivers. But openings are often unfilled for the women who chose field work as laborers, journeymen, engineers, foremen, superintendents and project managers, drivers and equipment operators.

In America, using the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2015, only 7% of people employed in construction are women – this at a time when more than 70 million women are seeking work.

Brian Turmail is Public Affairs Director at the Associated General Contractors of America. He sees many firms wanting to hire women. “It’s not a question of folks not wanting women,” he says, “it’s women not wanting to work in construction.”

The biggest employment paradigm shift in America happened when we entered World War II. Women had to fill 16 million jobs vacated by men headed for military service. With participation rates of working-age men dropping and baby boomers retiring en masse today, women may again be our greatest untapped resource to fill the thinning ranks.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that women in construction are among the most fairly compensated, earning an average of 93.4% of what men do, compared to an 82% average across all other industries.

So why the low participation in construction, even in high-paying jobs with benefit packages that don’t require a college degree?

It could be due in part to recruiting that is stuck aiming at men. Or the family of stereotypes that say women aren’t cut out for heavy construction, that work is dangerous and unsafe, that women will be belittled and sexually harassed at work sites.

But perhaps, at its root, it’s image. Perhaps the quickest means to overcome misperceptions is parents and counselors at middle and high schools seeing construction as viable for women and begin steering young ladies that way.

“It’s a battle of perception,” says Building Division Vice President Aaron Mednick. “Most parents don’t know that their daughter can pursue a rewarding career in construction.” But that is changing. With a pool of talented women gradually deepening, O&G has been able to hire more women in the last five years than it had in the prior ten. “Women need to know they’re in high demand in construction,” says Mednick.

The best spokespersons for working in construction are other women who have already succeeded in the field. “A lot of times, we think of heavy lifting – the labor side of it – but that doesn’t represent the full spectrum of jobs,” says Jennifer Wilkerson of the National Center for Construction Education and Research. “Once women know there’s a place for them, and it’s something they really can do well, they love it.”

Take Gina Palano, a young project engineer at O&G. Building was front of mind early on. She grew up around trades: her father and grandfather were Rhode Island masons. That immersion gave her an attachment to building and a joy in seeing things made by hand. While in college Palano co-opped with a regional construction firm and was hired by them when she graduated with an engineering technology degree. In Palano’s experience, her work has taken place on a level playing field. “It was a little daunting at first, being the only woman on a job site. There were uncomfortable moments like my first project meeting and being the only woman at the table though after the second or third meeting I felt totally comfortable. I have to say that I’ve been treated very fairly,” she says.

A document control specialist in the Heavy Civil Division at the New Haven Joint Venture, Robin Listorti understands that women may need to prove to the doubting Thomases that they can hold their own in a male-dominated industry. But to her, male versus female has been a non-issue. “There are a lot of women on this job and they get a lot of respect. O&G has great guys. The company has a knack for picking good people, men and women. Women here are treated no differently than men.”

Debbie Ackerman always liked working with her hands. She transitioned out of a 19-year career in factory machining and tool-anddie making to join the company in 1999. She eventually became O&G’s first female labor foreman. “O&G was looking for girls, I wanted out of being stuck inside a shop, so I applied,” she says. Seventeen years later, she is active everywhere on a job site, working mostly with men and helping things get built. “When I started I saw you have to earn respect no matter who you are. You need to pull your weight and be durable. You need to show you’re knowledgeable and teachable, then people will work with you.” She recalls being new and handed a difficult situation with no direction as to how to resolve it. It was a test, she saw afterwards. Using common sense she took care of it and her stock rose. She dismisses the rare woman who expects preferential treatment: “I’m not going to let a girl like that ruin the reputation the rest of us girls have built.”

O&G Vice Chairman Greg Oneglia recalls his first encounter with a woman tradesperson, who happens to have been Tracy Garofalo. “I was impressed with how competent she was and what a great worker. It really convinced me that more women should be looking into careers in construction.” If they can deal with working in the elements and the conditions of a construction site, Oneglia says, working in construction pays well and offers good benefits.

He continues. “The first time we had a woman in a project management position was at the Rowland Government Center in Waterbury. Lorel Purcell ran the tenant fit-out. The cooperation on the site amazed me. Having a woman running the project was new for many of the men and when Lorel directed them to do something, they just did it. If it were a guy they might have given him some resistance but when Lorel asked, they did whatever she said. It was so effective to have her there I knew we needed to keep adding more women in management roles.”

For Oneglia the strategic disassembling of generations-old barriers has come close to home. “I was happy to be able to bring my daughter Christina into the company. She was the first female in our family to be active in building. She earned a master’s in construction management while working here and has been in the field running projects for us since.” Back in New Haven in the field offices of the Joint Venture, Robin Listorti wonders. For many years she has been fascinated with heavy equipment, especially cranes. She thinks about what might have been. “I never even thought I could become a crane operator so I never pursued it. It wasn’t something I thought was possible.”

As awareness keeps building in the culture and perceptions change, women inclined to enter a male-dominated field will find open doors of opportunity awaiting them.

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left to right, top to bottom: Some of O&G’s women who work in the field: Labor Foreman Debbie Ackerman, Project Engineer Danielle Morin, Carpenter Deb Mittica, Carpenter Diane Maltese, Pre-construction Manager Lorel Purcell and Project Manager Toya Rivers