Women In Masonry

Words: Melonie Leslie

Words: Melonie Leslie

It's no secret that construction is an ever-growing market, and we are facing a severe labor shortage on all fronts. Yet, women are a highly underrepresented group in the construction industry despite women making up nearly half of all employed individuals. Why aren't more women in the construction industry? Why are there so many roadblocks to women in construction? Or are there really roadblocks anymore?

Women in construction go way back to the 1600s; they gained more traction in the 1800s. Emily Roebline helped complete the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge as a field engineer when her husband, who had been running the project, passed away. Louise Blanchard Bethune became the first woman admitted to the AIA in the late 1800s. Fast forward to the modern day, where the St. Regis Chicago is the tallest building in the world, designed by a woman, and Chicago's third tallest building overall.

Despite these women before us paving the way, many may feel a stigma or barrier to being accepted in the construction industry. But they shouldn't feel that way at all. Many years ago, I would say there was still quite a bit of stigma around women being in the industry, and it could be felt, especially in the field. Women were viewed as not being strong or knowledgeable enough to compete with their male counterparts. The fact is that it couldn't be further from the truth.

Women provide a different perspective and often different solutions to problems encountered on the job site. Women can communicate more effectively to provide direction to others on the job site as well as diffuse contentious situations. Being more detail-oriented and having the ability to multi-task allows women to be more efficient and create a clear pathway toward project success, even on complicated projects. Our memory skills tend to be better, allowing us to organize information in a way our counterparts cannot. Women tend to be more thorough in their approach as well, providing clear direction on the pathway toward success rather than vague directions.

Women are greatly under-represented in the construction industry despite all the qualities they could bring to the table. In nearly every meeting I'm in, I am the only woman at the table, whether in the field or the office. But that never deterred me, nor should it deter others. I've earned the respect of everyone sitting at that table and of all the men who work for me. How did I accomplish this? I never saw myself as different. I worked hard to be just like any other individual on the job site, whether it was a field person or an executive. I got in there and did "what the guys do." If it meant staying late to help clean up the job site, hauling materials to the job so they could keep working, showing up early to help get the job started, or getting on my hands and knees to scrub the floor so the crew didn't have to come back the next day, I did it. I didn't expect any special treatment. I never wanted anyone complaining that because I was a woman, I needed special treatment. If you don't see yourself differently, you won't be treated differently.

I would say a large part of the stigma surrounding women in the industry is that they don't have the knowledge or experience like a man does. But this is just a fallacy. Men learn about construction through doing, researching, and being taught by others. Women are no different and can grow their knowledge in the same way. I earn respect by showing that I have the knowledge and experience to perform the same functions as my male counterparts. I gained this knowledge through being hungry for information. If you don't know something, go find out! The internet is at our fingertips these days, and you can find what you don't know through websites, videos, or social media. Find a mentor or colleague who can show you and teach you. Find a network that provides support and leans on these individuals to help you grow your own database of information. Through this gained knowledge, you become a sought-after resource on the job and no longer just a token person sitting in a meeting to get credit. Become a lifetime learner to continue advancing your career…be a sponge.

From when I started in the industry until today, I have seen more and more women entering the field. And I'm excited to see it! They are in all positions, from the field to executives. At my company, I have a woman working in the field as a mason tender. She runs a tight ship and pushes on the guys to keep them moving. In my office, I rely on my project coordinator and administrators to help keep all our processes in order. I see other women out there across the country working as masons and forewomen on jobs as well. I work with women safety professionals who ensure entire job sites stay safe. I work with women who are project engineers, project managers, and executives at general contractors' offices. They all utilize the qualities I previously mentioned to be successful. As a woman, lean on these other women for input, ideas, and guidance. Create a network for yourself.

Women may view working in construction as having limits or no opportunities. However, this couldn't be further from the truth! In the construction industry, there are so many pathways and options. From working in the field, working in an office, managing, or owning a company to branching off into market segments that support the construction industry, such as safety and equipment. The great thing about the industry is that you can gain knowledge in multiple ways, whether it be field experience, trade school, or college. The pay gap average compared to our male counterparts is one of the smallest compared to other industries.

My journey to where I am today is not what I had expected, nor is it what I would have told you when I was deciding my career path in high school. Coming from a family who had owned a mason contractor business while I was growing up, I was adamant that I wasn't going into the masonry or construction industry. I started college, studying mathematics and statistics with the goal of becoming an actuary. I later switched my major to accounting. But, during my time in college, I worked on the administration side of my family's masonry business. By the time I had finished my accounting degree, my family wanted me to stay working for the business and made me an offer to stay. During the next few years, I really became hooked on masonry. I enjoyed watching the entrepreneurship and drive of my dad, seeing my dad and our team work hard every day to be rewarded with a sense of pride for what they built, the challenge of every job being different, and the beauty of the buildings we were crafting. Little did I know at the time that my stay was the start of a mentorship with my dad. This mentorship led to me purchasing his company when he retired and continuing his vision. I have had the opportunity to work on remarkable buildings for municipalities, work with a world-renowned artist, and be flown on a private jet for the private work of a philanthropist. But what I didn't realize it would lead to was so many more opportunities.

Along the way, I had other mentors enter my life and encourage my involvement in the masonry industry at a much higher level. I'm on the Arizona Masonry Council's board of directors, where I work on legislative efforts, workforce development, and general advancement of the industry. I'm also on the MCAA board of directors, where I have also taken on legislative efforts, meeting senators, congressmen, and congresswomen, worked on workforce development, and now am the first woman to sit on the executive board. While it's very exciting to be selected as the first woman, the more rewarding part of that selection was hearing all the positive feedback and congratulations from my peers. The point in telling my story is that being a woman in construction can have endless opportunities. You can make it into what you want it to be and be viewed just as highly as any other.

With stigmas falling off, more resources available to women, track records of successful women who have paved the way before us, and fewer pay gaps than other industries, women have amazing opportunities at their fingertips. As employers, women in the industry should be sought after for their qualities and what they can bring to the table. Women should be viewed as a breath of fresh air for the industry and an untapped resource. Organizations should be looking to grow their female workforce to help overcome the labor shortages we are facing. Women are a force to be reckoned with in the construction industry!

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