Women in construction: Breaking down male stereotypes

BRIDGIT | Feb 5, 2017

Every year, the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) dedicates a week to celebrating the role of women in construction and bringing awareness to the opportunities available in the industry. The Bridgit team is joining this effort, by highlighting successful female construction professionals whom we’ve had the privilege of working with.

Welcome to the second edition of our Women in Construction Week series. This time, we had the pleasure of speaking to Norma Henry, Project Director at Kubik – a company that designs and creates exhibits for an international market.

Having quite the extensive work experience in the science industry, Henry is no stranger to showcasing the ‘non-traditional’ opportunities available for woman. She’s been in the construction industry for the past 15 years, but prior to that, she worked at Science North, Canada’s second-largest science center. “I’ve done a lot of past projects and activities with women in science, to showcase opportunities that are considered more non-traditional career paths,” says Henry.

What drives Henry’s passion now is her ability to contribute to the success and longevity of the community. “I’m at a point in my career, where I can be a little more philosophical. The priority is now the communities and how they will benefit from these projects, and the lasting impact they will have.”

What inspired you to pursue a career in the construction industry?

“My two other sisters and I spent every Saturday at Canadian Tire with our father, as we were growing up. We knew how to change oil, spark plugs, and a great deal of other things. My father grew up on a farm, so he knew how to do a lot and had a little workshop in his basement. We learned a lot from him. Through that experience, I’d always had an affinity towards doing those types of hands-on projects.”

“One of my future goals is to design and build my own home. I have always enjoyed this sort of thing. I like the idea of having a workplace that allows me to gain experience and work with some incredible people. I’ve been very fortunate to work with a great team of people who come from different paths, and have worked on a wide variety of projects.”

What has been the most surprising part of being a woman in construction?

“I hadn’t worked exclusively on a male team, so I was quite surprised at how it wasn’t as stereotypical as I was expecting. Male stereotypes exist too – but they’re not all Tim the Tool Man personalities. It was surprising to hear the guys trade recipes or tips on where the best place was to get diapers on sale.”

“When you’re working with a team of people and sit down for lunch, you all talk about your families, kids, etc. It’s not an environment filled with the typical male stereotypes – everybody has a story, and everybody has their challenges. It just means that we’re all in it together.”

Are there any advantages of being a woman in the construction industry?

“The element of surprise.”

“People can make assumptions. It’s great when you realize you’ve gained somebody’s respect – not because you’re a woman – but rather due to having the knowledge base that’s required. The dynamics of being on an all-women’s team or an all-men’s team varies with different perspectives. Regardless, it comes down to strengths, and what each team member brings to the table. How women and men think can be very different, so I see having a different perspective along the way as a positive thing.”

What is the biggest challenge women in construction are up against?

“At one point, I was leading a team of 20 men and I was the only female in that department. I was fortunate to have a very supportive team and felt that I was treated as an equal. But, I also had some negative experiences when working with subcontractors.”

“You do face some stereotypes when you’re the project lead. You’re responsible for the project, but they walk up to the first guy they see on your team because he’s a male and looks like a ‘construction guy.’ I’ve had that happen before, but you have to learn how to balance it. You have to start the project off in a way that people understand what your role is, in a way that supports your team.”

“I’ve been referred to as, ‘that woman’ and I’ve had other things said about me as well. But, because it’s a strong team and the team knows that they’re supported, they’re the ones that respond with: ‘You need to go talk to the woman in charge. She’s the project manager. I don’t have the answers for you.’ They stand up for me even without me knowing it, and provide support when it’s needed”

What is the most memorable moment of your career in construction?

“I do have a great story. When working with this team of 20 technicians, I had one of the sweetest things happen in my career. I was going through a rough period –my sister was quite ill, and it was a very difficult time. I was running back and forth between Sudbury and Toronto.”

“I was called into a meeting that I just thought was a team meeting with these 20 guys, and they presented me with my own pink toolbox and all pink tools. It was a great honor for me, because they got organized enough to do this and it was a gesture of acceptance that I was one of them. My sister was fighting breast cancer, so the purchase of the tools supported the kind of cancer she was fighting. That’s definitely one of my highlights.”

What’s your top 3 pieces of advice for women who are thinking about pursuing a career in construction?

“Tackle things that you’re afraid of and take on new challenges. Don’t let the mentality of ‘I’ve never done this before, so I can’t do it’ hold you back – always ask questions. The only stupid question is the one not asked. Especially in construction, if you’re unsure about what you’re doing, and somebody ends up having to go back and rip it all up – that’s time, material, money, etc. wasted.”

“Find a mentor. Male or female, it doesn’t matter – as long as you can ask them questions. I have been very fortunate in having my go-to people. I know I can reach out via text or a phone call, and ask for advice, guidance, pointers, etc. Having a sounding board and a stable of experts you can bounce ideas off of is important.”

“Make sure you also extend that same kind of consideration to others. I was very fortunate that people took the time to answer my questions and shared information with me. Now that I’m further along in my career, I make sure that I take the time to coach people who are starting their careers.”

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