DC Leads U.S. With Women in Construction Jobs

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This week is Women in Construction Week, an annual event started in 1998 by The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) that recognizes the challenges overcome by female workers in the construction industry. 

This year’s theme is “Many Paths, One Mission,” which is intended to celebrate the different journeys taken by women to achieve the same goal: strengthening and amplifying the success of women in the construction industry. 

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Approximately 10.9 percent of all construction workers in the U.S. are women, representing an all-time high, according to the NAWIC.

Washington, D.C., at 17.6 percent, leads the country in the share of women holding construction industry jobs, with Maryland holding the No. 8 ranking at 13.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Commercial Observer spoke to four women in the D.C. region about their experiences in the construction industry.

How it started

Catriona Winter, senior vice president of project development for Clark Construction Group in McLean, Va., came to the construction industry by way of the architecture community. While earning her master’s in architecture, she began working part time at two architecture firms in Charlottesville to gain practical experience.

“Being the most junior employee in the office, I was often assigned to identify and resolve issues for projects that were actively under construction,” she said. “Through this construction administration work, I had the opportunity to work closely with general contractors, subcontractors and clients, and realized that was a dimension of the built environment that I was very much interested in pursuing further.” 

Today, working with Clark Construction, her role predominantly operates within the project development phase of a project, with responsibilities centering around providing clients, design partners and trade partners a customized and integrated assembly of the company’s suite of services, ranging from design constructibility reviews, scheduling, conceptual estimating, VDC/BIM coordination and phasing studies. 

“Every day is wildly different from the previous or next; there is never a dull moment in the construction industry, especially in the interesting and exciting intersections with other facets of the built environment — design partners, trade partners, etc.” Winter said. “It is also incredibly rewarding and fulfilling to witness the tangible fruits of your labor, made manifest real time nearly immediately upon decisions being made.”

Sara Pollacco, senior project manager for MacKenzie Contracting in Timonium, Md., followed her father into the construction industry, focusing on project management while getting her business administration degree at Towson University. 

“I started at a subcontracting company as an intern and then continued my career working my way to the general contracting side,” she said.

In her role as project manager, which she has held for five years, Pollacco is responsible for taking the project from its initial bid phase all the way through the completion and warranty phases. 

“My favorite thing about working in the construction industry is the ability to reflect on a project, knowing how the space looked when you first walked onto the job versus the end result,” she said. “It is a rewarding feeling knowing you contributed to a plan that originated on paper and watched it come to real life.”

Kristen Schrader, project development manager for Harkins Builders in Columbia, Md., also got into the business thanks to her dad, though indirectly. Schrader heard lots of dining room table talk from her father, who was in construction, though he never wanted her to be in the business because of how tough the job could be.

“My journey started with a woman; I was referred to a civil engineering firm position when I was much younger and it propelled me into my love for the construction industry, and I never looked back,” Schrader said. 

For Rose Torres, senior director of business development for D.C.-based Skanska, the trajectory was straightforward. Torres is responsible for the strategic growth of business in the District, Northern Virginia and Baltimore, working with clients, architects, design partners and industry organizations. “I started out on the operations side of construction in London, and joined Skanska’s ‘Stretch Program,’ which involved doing a year of work experience in the U.S., and I’ve been here nine years now,” she said.

Notable projects (or how it’s going)

These women, and many others, have had a hand in transformational and quotidian projects throughout the D.C. region, and elsewhere — from mixed-use megaprojects to civic buildings, office renovations and local retail.

Throughout Winter’s career, she has led or participated in the delivery of large and complex projects in the mid-Atlantic region. One example is Phase 1 of the District Wharf, where she served as design executive for the project, leading the integration of three architects, and up to 250 designers and engineers at the peak of development. 

“Beyond the most recent leadership of a few large confidential clients’ campus projects, I have also led the construction of the Square 37 Westlight (condos, apartments, and a new library branch for D.C. Public Libraries), the Square 50 mixed-use development (D.C. fire station, squash center, and affordable housing), 600 Massachusetts Avenue, and several other large mixed-use and commercial or government office building and HQ projects, such as the Douglas Munro Coast Guard Headquarters Building,” Winter said.

Pollacco’s favorite types of projects to work on are office and retail properties. Companies in recent projects included Starbucks, b.well Connected Health, Crunch Fitness, Kiddie Academy, Flywheel Digital, Clearway Pain Solutions, and Advarra. 

Skanska is weeks away from completing the VHC Health Outpatient Pavilion in Arlington, Va., which is scheduled to open to patients this summer, and close to finishing the Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, a net-zero energy project in Alexandria. Torres was instrumental in both of these projects.

Challenges women face (how it’s going part II)

Women in the construction business face myriad issues.

“Due to the stereotype of this field being a male-dominated industry, many times women are not taken as seriously, or questioned whether we truly know what we are doing,” Pollacco said. “I have been mistaken for having a role on the ownership or tenant side and not often assumed to hold a project management role on the contracting/construction side.”

Throughout the two decades of Winter’s construction career, she has witnessed significant progress across a variety of dimensions of her experience as a woman in the construction industry.

“When I began my career, there were very few leaders across the construction industry and associated industry organizations who looked like me; the importance of representation can not be understated,” she said. “I am pleased to see the ever-increasing percentages of women who are selecting career trajectories within field leadership roles, as well as becoming leading innovative drivers of their companies’ tactical and strategic business direction.”

Torres shared that the challenges begin when one first enters the construction business because it’s very intimidating, especially since you’re working with men who often have decades more experience and don’t always take a woman seriously. 

“Young women need to build their confidence in the role, even when managing men who are old enough to be your father or grandfather,” she said. “It can continue to be challenging as women move on through their career and start a family or assume another caregiving role, and it’s hard to balance the demands of working on a construction site, which often involves starting early in the morning and finishing sometimes late at night.”

How to make it in construction

Torres said construction offers a lot of variety and keeps one from having to be stuck behind a desk all day, so it’s very rewarding, especially when a project is completed and you can see the day-to-day impact a project can have on a community. 

For women looking to get into a construction career, there are numerous resources to help.

Within Skanska, the company has its own women’s network to provide advocacy and support for women within the business. Throughout D.C. there are also industry organizations, including a D.C. chapter of the CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women) network. Additionally, the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council has a green women group and mentorship program.

“A lot of women don’t necessarily know that construction can be a really fulfilling career option, so we try to do a lot of high school outreach,” said Torres, who is a member of CREW. “With CREW, we do a monthly career club for female students and give them the opportunity to meet women in the field and learn a little bit about architecture, engineering and development.”

Taking advantage of opportunities is important, Winter said, and the earlier people start, the better.

“Embrace every opportunity for practical experience during your educational years, and say ‘yes’ to the opportunities that may not immediately appear to be a linear progression of what you originally envisioned,” Winter said. “There will come a time when your individual experiences will build up to a moment where your life comes full circle, and seemingly disparate experiences, when combined, have created a career that is uniquely yours.”

Pollacco noted that women interested in pursuing careers in construction should reach out to others already operating in the field, who are always willing to help.

“Let them share their own experiences, and know that what used to be a male-dominated industry is slowly losing that stereotype,” she said. “Regardless of where you go, there will be obstacles to face. There are several successful women in this field. I wouldn’t let being female deter you from taking a leap into something that interests you.”

As a past president of CREW Baltimore and the co-founder of ULI Baltimore’s Women’s Leadership Initiative, Schrader plays a huge role in identifying women in the region for speaker positions. 

“It amazes me to this day that I will reach out to companies and they don’t have a [woman to speak on the subject],” she said. “Since entering the construction industry, I have experienced imposter syndrome, as many women do. My biggest advice to my fellow women in construction is to be your best self every day and don’t hold back. Seeing more women in the office, the field, and at the ‘table’ has not only been empowering for me, but has also started to break down the stigma that construction is just for men.”

Keith Loria can be reached at Kloria@commercialobserver.com.