MADISON, Ala. — Nationally, women make up less than 10 percent of the construction industry – 9.1 percent according to the National Association of Women in Construction.
That number has been steadily increasing over the past decade, so much that the NAWIC started a Women in Construction Week, held annually in March. It highlights women as viable components of the construction industry and raises awareness of the opportunities available for women in the construction industry.
Hoar Construction, headquartered in Birmingham and contracted to build the new Rocket City Trash Pandas’ baseball stadium in Madison, has long since broken through.
When it comes to women wearing hardhats on a construction site, Hoar Construction says women are beginning to dominate in engineering and project management positions within their company. Hoar’s female workforce is up to 20 percent, but what kind of challenges do women face on a construction site and how do so many find their way into the business?
Meet Amanda Black, Safety Manager
Amanda Black is a safety manager for Hoar Construction and is with the crew at the baseball stadium. Amanda is 29 years old and her parents have worked for Hoar for over 32 years.
“I grew up on a construction site,” said Black. “As a child, I picked things apart to see how they were built. Even with toys, I wasn’t interested in the thing itself.
“I was more interested in how it was put together and what was inside that made it work.”
Black went to college on a scholarship, but the school didn’t offer academics in engineering or construction.
She came back to what she knew. Eleven years later, she is working for Hoar and is back in school for construction management.
“No one should be limited in what they want to be, if they have the heart for it,” Black said. “You have to have a thick skin to be a woman among so many men, but you need a thick skin in life anyway, right?”
As a safety manager, Amanda notes that everyone on a construction site has a very important job and the more skills sets you have, the more it benefits you.
“I started out as a laborer trying my hands at carpentry work, concrete, and I know how to operate some of the equipment,” she said. “I also help with the shell work on empty buildings and cross over to quality control when they need help.
“It’s what you do – you work your way up.”
Meet Jessica Yarbrough, Assistant Superintendent
Jessica Yarbrough grew up learning the cabinetry trade from her father who worked as a boat captain three days on and three days off. Cabinetry was a hobby he excelled in and still does.
Jessica can build cabinets, but she chose not to pursue the craftsmanship side of construction. Instead, she has spent the past 7½ years traveling from project to project with her husband who is a superintendent for Hoar Construction.
Yarbrough has worked on a Disney World project in Orlando; built a physical fitness facility for the Army in Clarksville, Tenn.; built an outdoor shopping center in Baton Rouge, La.; and a commissary at Naval Air Station Jacksonville (Fla.)
Now she is in Arlington, Va., working for the first time without her husband on a 12-story midrise apartment building.
“I am an exterior scan superintendent,” said Yarbrough. “I am responsible for the brick, metal panel, glass storefront, and glass curtain wall that makes up the exterior on this project. Every day, I oversee the work of our trade partners, including brick masons, a metal panel guy, our window installer, and ironworkers.
“I work a little bit with the exterior framers and with our air barrier system, and I handle all the scheduling, coordination, and I manage workflow to ensure the project gets built on time.”
Yarbrough started college in premed but, while in the process of switching to nursing, an advisor noticed she was taking extra math classes. She asked Jessica if she was good at math and when she answered “Yes,” they encouraged her to pursue engineering rather than the medical field.
“I feel I have grown into the job,” she said. “There were opportunities for workers to pull a fast one on me or to get by with stuff but, instead, we worked through some teachable moments that made us all better at our jobs.”
Since then, there have been only a handful of times when she felt being a woman negatively impacted what she was trying to do.
“I find the day-to-day challenges – getting the job done on time and on budget – is harder than any challenges I face as a woman in a male-dominated field.”
Meet Donna Strange, Assistant Superintendent
Donna Strange, like Jessica Yarbrough, is an assistant superintendent for Hoar Construction and she coordinates among multiple trade partners, documenting and making notification of field changes in real time on any project.
“I am the boots in the field,” she said. “I communicate with the project superintendent the challenges and opportunities that need to be addressed with schedule and cost impacts. I listen to the concerns of our trade partners, always keeping one eye open for safety; and I have to make on-the-spot executive decisions to keep the project moving – not just the daily progress – but I have to be prepared to make the calls needed to keep the wheels on the bus during the challenging days ahead.”
Donna said she bounced around a few different professions, all of which left her feeling stuck, without a chance to get out and learn and explore.
“I found myself on a construction project as it was nearing the final stages and I fell head over heels in love with all aspects of the experience,” she said. “I found a profession where everyday there was potential for learning something new.”
She said her biggest challenge at being a woman in a predominantly male industry is her 5-foot-2, 110-pound stature. It can be hard to show authority when you are petite, but she gets around it by being knowledgeable.
“I keep my eye on the big picture – giving our client a facility that meets expectations and I don’t let my size hinder my authority and responsibilities,” she said. “I focus on always staying calm, listening, and sharing my experience in a situation, before making decisions that affect others.”
Meet Sarah Horton, Project Engineer
Sarah Horton joined Hoar Construction officially this past year as a project engineer, but she worked for Hoar throughout college and was a co-op student with them in 2014. Sarah has a degree in architectural engineering from the University of Alabama but, from a general contractor’s perspective, she is at the management level of the job cost perspective.
Most of the work Sarah is involved with is renovated buildings rather than new construction, and she has been assigned to the Samford University campus in Birmingham. Her most current project is the University Center.
“We went in and took everything out including the slabs used to create two floors,” said Horton. “Now we have a shell of a building all on one floor, so we can start over.”
Structural and procedural changes are commonplace in renovations and Sarah’s architectural engineering background allows her to run software programs that a typical project manager ordinarily wouldn’t, such as the popular Building Information Modeling software.
“Typically, when we get a set of documents, they are printed on paper, but obviously building construction is seen much better in 3-dimension,” Horton said. “I use BIM and my architectural engineering background in HVAC design, power distribution and design, and structural concepts of building to get that into a 3-D space and coordinate changes from a general contractor’s perspective.
“Being able to run BIM gives us some control over the original designs using Virtual Design & Construction (VDC), so we can say, ‘You designed this, but we have a sprinkler system that must fit in this space too and it has certain code requirements. Let’s work together to make it all fit in this space with 25-foot high ceilings.’ ”
Sarah was exploring scholarship options while enrolled at the University of Alabama studying dentistry when she was approached by the engineering department, who had her test scores in math and science.
“Because I was a female, I was going to receive a nice engineering scholarship to declare general engineering as my major,” she said. “After one engineering foundations class, I was hooked!
“I agree with Amanda that you have to have thick skin, know who you are, and from a professional standpoint, be confident and understand the depth of your experience,” she said. “Now when I sit down at the table, I may be the only woman at that table, but I feel confident enough to give my opinion.
The Male Perspective
Horton said a lot of older men in the construction industry are against having women on the construction site because they believe it to be too dangerous from a safety standpoint. Unanimously, all four Hoar Women in Hardhats say, “No! We belong here just as much as you do!”
“It puts more pressure on me to make sure I know what I’m talking about,” said Horton. “I don’t get a free pass because I’m a girl. I have to know my stuff and back up what I say because they will go toe-to-toe with me on some things.”
“Construction is an amazing business to be in,” said Black. “For me, construction isn’t just a job. It’s a lifestyle. Construction provided for me when I was growing up, and now it provides for me as a mother.”
Although she did not pursue the craftsmanship side of construction, Yarbrough admits building cabinets is still in her cards.
“My dad still has a shop and all the tools and equipment, so it’s always been sort of like … if all else fails … I can always build cabinets!”
If she does, she will be an even rarer phenomenon since women make up less than 2 percent of carpenters nationwide!