Every March, the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) and its thousands of members celebrate Women in Construction Week. This year’s celebration comes at a time when the construction industry faces increasing labor shortages on top of existing ones, and a disproportionate number of women have left our nation’s workforce since the pandemic began. How do we respond as an industry? Where do we need to improve? This week, a few of our employee-owners in California shared their stories and offered thoughtful insights.
Joining the discussion were employee-owners Jessica Beyer (San Diego), Betty Lynn Senes (Irvine), Pamela Alvarado (San Mateo), and Mari Tilzey (Sacramento). Across the board, their responses made it clear: women have come a long way in construction, yet there is still much work to be done. First and foremost, we need more women to join our ranks. And, when they do, some amazing opportunities await them.
How did you all get into construction? And what has kept you here?
Jessica Beyer: My dad started in construction as a mechanic and worked his way up to a senior leadership role, and he’s still in construction today. All of my uncles are glazers, electricians, and flooring contractors, so I grew up with the industry surrounding me. Once I had the opportunity to join a general contractor, I jumped on it. And I’ve been here ever since.
Mari Tilzey: I always had a thing for building, even as a small child. I didn’t have any Legos—in the ’60s it was Lincoln Logs and Erector Sets—but my boy cousins did, and I played with their toys as much as I could. My family members were all CPAs so I went to school for accounting and interned for a construction firm because of my fascination with building things. They pulled me into estimating, and I’ve just been in that world since my early 20s. Construction has been a great field for me. I’ve always enjoyed it.
Pamela Alvarado: Like Jessica, I grew up around it. My dad worked in construction in Mexico, and when we moved to Arizona, he built fences. Every summer when I was in high school, he would take me to work with him out in the field. He would always have a sense of pride at the end of the day about the work that he put in, and I wanted to have that same feeling. I also wanted a career that was challenging and offered variety. Construction provides that every single day.
Betty Lynn Senes: My whole life growing up, my dad was building airplanes in our basement and garage. I was always helping him work with sheet metal or fiberglass. Also, my grandfather was a building inspector, and my grandmother was a seamstress. I learned to sew and even made my own wedding gown. I liked putting things together. When I went to college, though, my school didn’t offer a major in construction management. So I went in front of a board and presented my own major, which was accepted. I called it Construction Planning and Execution, and it included urban studies, architecture, real estate, finance, and management. I took off a semester and did a nine-month internship with a general contractor, and I worked in nearly every department. The rest is history.
[My dad] would always have a sense of pride at the end of the day about the work that he put in, and I wanted to have that same feeling. That’s why I went into construction. I also wanted a career that was challenging and offered variety. Construction provides that every single day.
—Pamela Alvarado, Project Engineer, Industrial Group West
Mentors seem to factor heavily into each of your career journeys. Betty Lynn and Jessica, what role has mentoring played in your growth?
Betty Lynn: I was lucky to have good mentors early on. Through NAWIC, I met a woman who owned a construction management firm who told me: “You don’t have to talk like a sailor to be effective in construction. You can still be a lady and be successful. Stand firm and be your own person, and you can do it.” I was 17, and I’ll never forget her. I also had a boss named Stan Breakell, who taught me how to do concrete take-offs. Instead of letting me hand off a task I was unsure of, he taught me new skills and allowed me to grow into my responsibilities. I’ll be forever grateful for that. As I progress into the second half of my career, if you will, I’m even more interested in mentoring others and helping them grow into what their natural capabilities are and develop critical thinking skills.
Jessica: Had it not been for mentors like Pam Hermosillo, Mary Homan, and Rob Foster I could have gotten lost several times in my journey. They’ve come alongside me and guided me, and have given me opportunities to grow through reach assignments that have challenged me. I think that’s the most important thing we can do to develop our people, regardless of whether they’re men or women—give them a challenge and help them grow out of their position. Each one of us should strive to do that.
Instead of letting me hand off a task I was unsure of, [my boss] taught me new skills and allowed me to grow into my responsibilities. I’ll be forever grateful for that. As I progress into the second half of my career, I’m even more interested in mentoring others and helping them grow into what their natural capabilities are and develop critical thinking skills.
—Betty Lynn Senes, Project Director, Building Group California District
Pam and Mari, has anything stood in your way to get where you are now? How did you overcome that?
Pam: When I first started with Sundt’s Industrial Group, learning certain technical skills was a bit challenging. I was able to overcome this by asking questions, and just being out there in the field, learning how to build from the ground up. This has helped me to improve and progress in my career. Having people skills is another strength. In construction, you’re going to encounter difficult people. You have to know when not to compromise and when to work toward a middle ground.
Mari: I’ve been in this industry for three decades, and it’s changed quite a bit. Once I got into estimating, my company’s management told me I needed a civil engineering degree. So I went back to school, and I was the only woman in the construction side of the civil engineering program, which was frowned upon. When we did lab projects, I wasn’t allowed to participate, and I was assigned to washing shovels. Needless to say, I left that program. However, I had a wonderful mentor where I worked, and honestly, everyone in the construction industry has been fantastic to me.
In many ways, Sundt is ahead of the game. Being a woman has never put me at a disadvantage here. I was promoted when I was seven months pregnant, to join the estimating team. Like, who does that? It sounds crazy. But it’s important to highlight our wins, to remember where we’ve come from and to push ourselves to be the best industry we can be.
– Jessica Beyer, Project Controls Manager, Building Group, California District
Mari and Betty Lynn, what has changed in the industry since you started, and what still needs to change?
Betty Lynn: We’re a more sophisticated and data-driven industry than we’ve ever been. Yet, our workforce is still only 9% women; it was 6% when I started 30 years ago. We need to do a better job of reaching out to high schools, raising awareness among students, parents and counselors. In California, Sundt is partnering with organizations like the Construction Industry Education Foundation and Women in Engineering.
It’s our job to change perceptions, especially for parents of girls, to show them: we need emotional intelligence and technical skills. Also, recognizing the differences that women bring to the industry is good—a diverse workforce makes us stronger.
Mari: There’s more of a concerted effort now to bring women into the industry—and there has to be. When I first started, I was the only one at the office. It was me and 50 men, and I had a baby strapped to the front of me or in a baby swing in my office, but everyone embraced it. And now, more than ever, I think people are realizing the strengths women bring to the table. Too many people still have stereotypes about the work we do—the level of technical skill required. For me and Jessica, we’re really detail-oriented and can crunch numbers all day, just as well as our male colleagues.
It’s always been a male-dominated industry and still is in many ways, but you don’t really see that when you’re in it. I’ve never been discouraged by anyone in the industry—it’s honestly been lovely. It’s kind of a hidden gem. I wish more women knew about it.
—Mari Tilzey, Preconstruction Project Manager, Building Group California District
Data suggest the brunt of the pandemic has been felt by our nation’s female workforce. What have we learned as an industry in the past two years? And how should we respond moving forward?
Jessica: As someone who works with a lot of data, it was shocking to learn last year at the WIC conference that one in four women with children under age 10 are leaving the workplace. I love my kids, and I’m a very good mom, but I also love working. I love the relationships I build with my coworkers and seeing the change I can make on a daily basis. My husband and I have been married for 18 years, and I couldn’t work and be a successful mom without us having mutual support for each other, as well as our other family relationships.
The pandemic has shown me that it really does take a village. And that extends to the jobsite. In construction, your project team can feel like family. We feel things together, and we feel them as an industry too. When there’s a loss or a life-changing event, we all team up together in a way you don’t always see in other industries. I think that’s something we should be proud of.
Mari Tilzey: The pandemic gave us an opportunity to add more life balance. It allowed us to realize: Hey, we can do more with our families and still be successful in our careers. So there have been some positive outcomes too. As a person who is moving toward retirement, the impact of the pandemic has made my job more sustainable. Having more flexibility in my schedule is enabling me to go a few years longer than I probably would have otherwise.
How can we get more women into construction?
Pamela: We need to reach more students in high school. Not many high school students realize a STEM career can include construction. It’s important to create that awareness early on. NAWIC also does a lot of workshops with organizations like Girl Scouts, as well as different organizations that are tailored toward job growth and skills development.
Jessica: On top of that, I think we can also cast a wider net beyond CM and engineering degrees, and pair business skills with on-the-job training. A lot of career paths aren’t linear, and a lot of women’s journeys into this business may look different than others. But that’s the thing, at the end of the day, we’re a business. We benefit from having a diverse business skillset from the pool of talent we draw from.
Betty Lynn: Women considering this field need to know we’re setting an example for our daughters. I’ve always worked, and my daughter is now 28. And to this day she says, “Mom, you taught me how to work hard and make smart decisions.” I wouldn’t change the path I chose or the example I set for her—because I chose to do what I love.