Women in Construction: Demolishing Gender Barriers in the Construction Industry
It is certainly no secret that the construction industry is one of the most male-dominated career fields, with women making up roughly 9% of the construction workforce. In recent years, however, the industry has seen an uprising in women who dismantle withstanding gender barriers and occupy integral leadership roles in construction.
“It’s not easy,” said Truebeck Project Manager Brynda Olson, “You have to be very good because they’re going to call you out if you’re not.”
Olson found her way to Truebeck Construction in 2014, where she began as a Project Engineer. She advanced to Project Manager in under three years—though she did not always envision she would work for a general contractor.
As a fresh UC Berkeley graduate, Olson joined an architectural firm in downtown San Francisco. It was her collaboration with various general contractors throughout her five years on the job that piqued her interest in the construction industry.
“I liked figuring out how to actually build something, going from 2D to real life—I found that more compelling.”
Though she is on the general contractor side of the business now, her days in architecture are far from forgotten. In fact, she has found that her previous work experience equips her with a unique advantage in the field.
“It gives me a better connection with the architects because they know I’m on their side,” Olson comments, “I understand their intent and they love that I can see their point of view.”
Olson also shared what she finds to be the most rewarding part of her career.
“Being a mentor—I love seeing other engineers younger than me grow into strong leaders.”
Truebeck Senior Project Manager Kim Sowers, another high-achieving leader on the team, reflected on the impact of her first mentor in the industry.
“The Director of Construction for [UCSF] was super tough on me. She knew I was 23 years old, a young girl in a male-dominated industry—but she put all her eggs in my basket. She trusted me and gave me confidence.”
Sowers’s journey to the construction industry was far from linear. She graduated from San Francisco State University with a Bachelor of Science in Cellular Molecular Biology, though she came to realize it was not the right path for her.
Not long after, she started working for a commercial construction business in San Francisco as a Project Engineer on a healthcare project—an opportunity to unite her passion for science and curiosity about construction.
“I fell in love with it,” Sowers exclaimed.
She soon obtained a Construction Management Certification from UC Berkeley in 2010, and in 2015, she began her career at Truebeck as a Project Manager. Within three years, she was promoted to Senior Project Manager with the ambition to become a Project Executive.
“My biggest accomplishment was leading a large, complicated project as a young manager without a lot of resources, for a very sophisticated client,” said Sowers. “Most people don’t have the opportunity to manage a project until they’re well into their career.”
Sowers described the most prevalent gender biases she witnesses within the industry.
“[Your male counterparts] can be brand new, fresh out of school—but you’ll see men come into the trailer and go to them before they go to you, even though they have no clue what your roles are.” Sowers smiled, “I always enjoy sitting there and listening to them talk or ask a question to somebody who has no clue how to answer their question. Eventually, I know they’ll come to me.”
Sowers revealed the advice she gives when mentoring newcomers to the team.
“I tell all my engineers, [they’re] never going to have all the answers. Ask questions. The only dumb questions are the ones you don’t ask.”
Throughout her first year in construction, Truebeck Project Engineer Victoria Viet has taken the advice of her mentors to heart. She described the value mentorship offered her as a newcomer to the construction industry.
“Working with my trade partners at the beginning was really scary, but I had great mentors on this project who have helped me overcome those obstacles.”
Viet initially wanted to be involved with the design side of the industry, working for a small company in the South in her senior year of college. However, after stumbling upon Truebeck’s booth at the University of Texas career fair, she discovered she was better suited for the dynamic role of a Project Engineer. In August of 2019, she joined the Truebeck team.
Though Viet is new to the industry, she has learned myriad lessons about what it means to be a leader.
“Listening—that’s the key component of being a leader. [It’s] spending the time to understand their questions and not whizz through them,” Viet remarks, “I try to remember what [I] needed to gain success.”
To be recognized as a successful leader, not merely a successful woman, in the workplace is not without its challenges. Women are not only expected to prove themselves as accomplished professionals, but as accomplished women in comparison to their male counterparts.
Truebeck Project Executive Kelley Wathen spoke to her experience of being underestimated by her trade partners.
“Often-times people walk into the trailer or jobsite office and assume I’m performing a different role,” Wathen explains. “Some may view being underestimated as an obstacle. If anything, being underestimated can be a benefit.”
In 2009, Truebeck welcomed Wathen, a recent Cal Poly graduate, to the team as a Project Engineer. She swiftly rose through the ranks, achieving the status of Project Executive—just shy of her ten-year anniversary with the company—an endeavor which very few people in the industry achieve in that timespan.
Ironically, Wathen revealed that her career path with the company began with a rejection.
In her junior year of college, she was turned down by Truebeck upon applying for an internship position. Unwavering in her determination, she applied again the following summer and was awarded the internship.
“I like to tell this story to show that perseverance and resilience pay off. Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid to try again.”
Reflecting on other notable moments in her career, Wathen shared a sentiment regarding her first promotion at Truebeck.
“I had been a Project Engineer for about three and a half years, and decided I was ready for a promotion,” Wathen recalled, “I knew I had to work for it. For my annual review, I prepared this whole sales pitch on why I should be promoted. I had a binder. It had tabs. When I showed up, the entire leadership team was at the lunch, and there were Prius keys on the table—the symbol of making it to a Senior Project Engineer role. Turns out it was a ‘congratulations’ lunch.”
Wathen spoke to what she attributes her success.
“I didn’t try to be the best female Project Engineer or female Project Manager, I just tried be the best engineer or manager I could be.”