Women in construction: Thank you to the trailblazers who paved the way

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.

Holly Chen, Project Coordinator for the Minto Group is fascinated by Toronto’s construction industry. She describes it as unique and fast-paced – but it was school that originally brought her into the city. While she was completing her Civil Engineering degree from the University of Toronto (U of T), she did her first co-op placement on a low-rise construction site with Minto. Here’s where she fell in love.

“From that co-op, I learned that a construction site is always changing and I just fell in love with being on the site environment,” explains Chen. She considers herself very fortunate that she got her start in construction through an organization like Minto. “We have such a diverse and welcoming team here, I’ve never felt out of place.”

Chen plans on working her way up to becoming a Project Manager and being responsible for her own project. As for dealing with challenges in the workplace due to her gender – fortunately, it’s not something she’s had to worry about too much. She thanks the women who came before her and paved the way. “They deserve everyone’s respect for being the trailblazers in this industry,” says Chen.

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

“I was exposed to construction through my studies. U of T offered a construction course that was taught by professor Brenda McCabe, who was also the Chair of Civil Engineering. I remember thinking how great it was to hear her talk about her work on site. I was inspired by her experience and wanted to follow in her footsteps – to build something from scratch and see my hard work come to life.”

“Part of the allure of joining construction was also because it is a male-dominated industry – I wanted that challenge.”

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

“Before I got into construction, I had concerns that people would talk back to me or disrespect me in some way – but I haven’t experienced any of that.”

“Perhaps it’s because I’ve only worked on Minto sites and we have many strong females in leadership positions. The company is very diverse and everyone is so welcoming.Perhaps it’s also because of the many women who have come before us and paved the way.”

“Whenever I’ve been onsite, no one has intentionally made me feel uncomfortable. I was surprised by that. For example, even if you’re walking down a street, there may be people who hassle you, but I’ve never experienced that in a professional environment.”

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

“There are obviously a lot of stereotypes about the construction industry and of the people that work in it. I was aware of them before I started working. I thought about it quite a bit back then. However, now that I have worked on site for few years, I’m honestly surprised that there haven’t been any specific challenges to being a female.”

“I probably wouldn’t be able to say the same thing if it was 20 or 30 years ago, or maybe if I worked at a different company. I think the challenges are very similar to any other industry that you would work in, such as law, tech, or banking. Because of these stereotypes, women feel that they have to be very assertive. You need to know what you’re talking about, you need to be able to back up your statements, and you can’t be afraid to speak up. These are the challenges women face in construction, but they’re the same in any other workplace.”

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

“There are definitely advantages – the biggest one is that people will always remember you. It’s hard not to stand out as a woman on a jobsite. You will stand out so much that you barely need a business card.”

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

“That’s a tough question, there has been a lot. I would have to say most recently, it’s been starting this project. I was very excited to use what I had learned from the previous job. It was the first one where I was present for a large part of the project, so it was great to apply those experiences and learned skills to do better on this project.

“The project I’m on now is a big site, so I was really looking forward to it. The last development, just to give you some context, was a 35-storey, one-point tower with two rows of townhouses – but this one has a much larger footprint and is located downtown which presents new challenges.”

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

“If you love the rush of a changing environment every day – this is the industry for you. Construction in Toronto is extremely fast-paced. Don’t let preconceived stereotypes of construction hold you back. Just like me, I was surprised. Try it out through a co-op or a contract and find out if it’s the right fit for you.”

“My second tip – focus on your responsibilities, work hard, and don’t be embarrassed to speak up if you don’t know something. We all have to start from somewhere. Being able admit when you need help sets you apart, and people will respect you for it.”

“Third, and most important: Don’t forget to have fun. Construction is a unique environment. It’s fast-paced, it’s aggressive – you have to keep up with it. It’s also an environment that is less political and is very team-based. If you have a great team and you enjoy working with them, treasure that and have fun.”

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