By Jack Stubbs
“It’s a question of women in the construction industry looking at all the opportunities and positions and roles available in construction and bringing in new and different ideas. As those women come, we can start pushing the boundaries in the industry even more and start advancing it beyond the conventional build and the way it’s always been done,” said Lauren Boedeker, project manager at Mortenson Construction.
Boedeker was highlighting one of the main objectives of the annual Women in Construction Week, a national event which this year runs from March 4th through 10th and coincides with International Women’s Day held on March 8th. The week-long event hopes to raise awareness—of both construction companies and the industry more generally—around the increasingly important role of women in the construction industry and highlight the various opportunities available to women in the field.
In recognition of Women in Construction Week, Seattle’s Women of Mortenson Enrichment Network (Seattle WOMEN) is hosting a variety of educational, professional and social events to promote the importance of female talent in the construction industry.
Although the construction market in Seattle is booming, the contribution of women remains an untapped resource, according to Tamara Hartner, senior project manager at Mortenson, a Minneapolis-based construction and development company. Hartner has a background in healthcare construction and was the project manager for the recently completed Residence Inn by Marriott in Downtown Seattle. “I’ve been in the construction industry for about 15 years now. Overall, when you look at the Seattle construction market, it’s hot, and the market is growing very steadily here in Seattle,” she said. “At the same time, about 9 percent of the construction industry is made up of women. Really, what I’d like to see as we move forward is to see how we can improve and increase that number, both on the craft side and on the engineering side here in Seattle,” she said.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that women face an uphill battle in making a name for themselves in the construction industry. As of 2015, women working in construction numbered 1.3 percent of the entire U.S. workforce. As of December 2016, approximately 939,000 women were employed in various occupation sectors of the industry and now make up 9.1 percent of the construction industry in the U.S. This figure is down significantly from 2005, when there were 1,079,000 women working in the construction industry sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hartner thinks that this downward trajectory should be combated with a broader change in mindset. “Regarding the overall shift of [fewer] women in construction, I think that has to do with an overall theme, whether with men or women, [where] the industry really needs to focus on bringing in women and retaining good craft and field members to ensure that we keep building our industry,” she said.
The industry is also bifurcated along gender lines, as well. According to 2016 general construction statistics (an annual average based on monthly surveys of 60,000 households, equaling 150,000 people) from the BLS, there were a total of 10,328,000 workers in construction, with men accounting for approximately 9.4 million of this figure.
Mortenson is one company leading the way when it comes recognizing and highlighting female talent in the industry and has created various affinity groups nationally and locally that emphasize the growing role of women in the industry. “Specifically in Seattle, we’ve started the Mortenson Seattle Women Affinity Group, which supports the professional development of women within the company here in Seattle,” Hartner said. “Mortenson believes in the grassroots aspect of affinity groups to make sure that people feel empowered to be a part of these groups,” she added. And last week, 150 women throughout the company attended a women’s conference in Minneapolis, where the company is headquartered.
Along with the women affinity groups, one of the most important elements of promoting female talent within the industry is giving women the educational tools needed to succeed as early in the process as possible, according to Jordyn Tucker, safety engineer at Mortenson’s Seattle office. “I think a big part of what’s important is recruiting women at a young age because [construction] is not always the most sought after industry to go into right now for women. But I think that’s definitely changing,” she said. According to Tucker, who graduated from Central Washington University in June 2017 from the institution’s Safety and Health Management program, education about the construction industry earlier in the process is key—and Mortenson remains actively involved in this regard. “When I went to college, I was getting my degree in safety, but in no way did I think that I wanted to go into construction. Mortenson does a lot of recruiting at college career fairs at the University level,” she said. “Unless I had been found out early on in school, I don’t think I would have ended up in this industry, which I love working in now,” she added.
As part of the educational program around women in construction, Mortenson also hosts three-month mentorship programs for high school and college students in which they go through all the design stages a development, from the initial design to the eventual construction of the project. According to Lauren Boedeker, project manager at Mortenson, the goal of the program is to educate women early on about what they can contribute to a growing industry that is in need of a fresh perspective. “[The mentorship program] shows high school and college students what we do, how we do it, and why their perspective is so important for our industry. To have that female view on something is huge when it comes to an industry that has pretty much been doing the same thing the same way for a significant amount of time,” she said.
The mentorship programs are part of an attempt to address a gap in the knowledge about the benefits that women can bring to the industry. According to Boedeker, the relatively small contribution of women in the construction industry is in part due to a social mindset that is reinforced in the early years of education. “Everyone hears about how, when you’re a kindergartner, you want to be a firefighter or a police officer or a teacher or an architect,” she said. “But a lot of people don’t understand that in the [construction] industry itself, there is this side of management and general contracting and the opportunity for women to work in the field.”
This lack of understanding is, unfortunately, largely due to the fact that from an early age, women are not armed with the knowledge necessary to make an informed decision about a career in construction, according to Boedeker. “It’s not something that is talked about a lot. There were a lot of girls in the mentorship program who thought they might want to be a designer or an architect or a general contractor,” she said. “But they didn’t even know that the construction path was an option for them, because they’d never been educated that it existed.”
Accordingly, one of the primary objectives of Women in Construction Week is to bring awareness to the multiple opportunities that are available to women in the industry. And these opportunities extend beyond general perceptions about the industry as a whole, according to Boedeker, who highlighted how the increasing influence of technology in construction is changing the landscape and opening the door for women. “It’s not all just someone swinging a hammer in the field or someone sitting in the office managing the project. There’s a lot more to the construction industry, like with the whole boom of virtual reality and 3D and 4D modeling,” she said. “There’s a lot of tech being used in the industry and a lot of women in the industry who really enjoy that modeling piece of it.” Mortenson’s Virtual Design and Construction department is continually looking for new ways to implement cutting-edge technology into new construction projects.
And while Mortenson is making significant strides in its attempts to further ingratiate technology and the role of women into the industry, the spirit of innovation in Seattle, which is largely fueled by the presence of established technology companies in the area, is also a contributing factor, according to Hartner. “In regards to Seattle, it’s that pioneering attitude that really brings all these different perspectives, with all these bigger companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook that all have such a strong presence in this city,” she said. “Because we have those types of organizations, we’re always at the forefront and pushing that envelope to see what we can do next. Mortenson locally is always looking forward to seeing that next step, which is to support women within the construction industry and also bringing new technologies to the table here in Seattle,” she added.
Although the underway Women in Construction Week represents an annual public showing of support for women in the industry, Boedeker thinks it would be unwise for Mortenson or other construction companies to rest on their laurels. “We need senior leadership support; it can’t just be women being champions for women. It has to be everyone within the company, from top to bottom, realizing that having more women and in the industry is what we need to help push our company forward,” she said.
Awareness around women in the construction world has not been lacking entirely; rather, it is a trajectory that is just getting started, according to Boedeker. “I don’t think it’s been lacking, I just think it’s something that has been getting more awareness and is starting to gain more and more momentum,” she said, also emphasizing how she hopes that, moving forward, the presence of women in the construction industry will happen organically. “As more women start coming into the industry, you start getting this exponential awareness with that. Companies are seeing benefits beyond what is just tangible. And it starts to grow from there.”