Rolling Up Their Sleeves

Women Continue to Break Through Construction’s Concrete Ceiling

By Jonathan Crowell

As we approach the 10-year mark since the 2008 recession, it’s clear that the construction and building industries have rebounded in style—and they are flourishing. Last year, U.S. construction-related spending passed $650 billion for the first time since the recession. In virtually the entire country, construction now bolsters the economy more than it did in 2010, which has created a demand not only for skilled workers, but also for leadership within those industries.

“Women will always be a minority in the construction industry, just as men will always be a minority in the teaching industry. I am confident our presence at leadership tables will significantly increase in the next 10-20 years. Europe and Australia are years ahead of the U.S. in this regard, but we know it is possible.”  — Susan Schaefer, senior project manager, JE Dunn Construction Co.

Amidst any impacts and domino effects to builders that resulted from the recession and in the bounce-back years since, one unmistakable shift involves the dissolving of the traditional glass ceiling—dubbed the “concrete ceiling” in the building industries—for increasing numbers of women. Subsequently, the industry is witnessing the emergence of female leaders in construction, engineering, architecture, the trades, and design, industries historically dominated by men.

“The building industries have figured out that women are good at time management, problem-solving, organization, and project management, among other skills, and there is always a demand to fill leadership positions with competent individuals,” says Connie Leipard, past president of the National Association of Women in Construction. “Women have taken advantage of this demand and gone on to develop leadership skills, as well—it’s a natural fit. If you are good, companies keep you engaged and they promote you.”

By bringing and developing these skills, many women have stepped up as industry leaders and have had a positive effect as a result. Their impact continues to inspire more women to engage in and take on more A/E/C leadership roles.

Driving the Increase

According to a 2016 study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics and EY (formerly Ernst & Young), companies that increase the percentage of female leaders from zero to 30 percent can realize a spike in profitability of up to a 15 percent. The study scrutinized nearly 22,000 publicly traded companies in 91 different countries.

 Not that we’ve always had this revelatory information, but it seems as solid an argument to go about aggressively recruiting as many women as possible for the C-suites of any industry.

In addition, existing A/E/C industry leaders are changing the way they think about diversification, coupled with an increase in the number of interest groups dedicated to supporting and advocating for female professionals, and women continue to shed traditional views of what competent leadership looks like. 

 “Women continue to understand that they really can do anything they want,” says Mary McNamara, owner of Cornell Roofing & Sheet Metal. “Young women are no longer—or nearly as much—steered toward traditional ‘female’ occupations. Fortunately, there are many examples of women already in these types of [leadership] roles, and that becomes a young person’s inspiration.” In construction, she said, many contractors might have taken their daughters along on various jobs, giving them a chance to learn about the trade. “What will be interesting to see,” McNamara said, “is daughters learning from their mothers about construction.”

Since her entry into the construction industry some 20 years ago, Monarch Construction Co. partner Courtney Kounkel has herself seen a “significant increase in women leaders in the A/E/C community.”

“As young women and girls have seen the increase in women in leadership positions, I believe they are more confident and encouraged that they will also be successful in the business,” says Kounkel. “There are also several professional organizations that not only encourage women to work together, they also create opportunities for mentorship. I have experienced first-hand that successful women are extremely giving with their time and talents to support and mentor other women.” 


Even though more women are emerging throughout the ranks of industry leadership, challenges remain. Currently
women comprise 47 percent of the U.S. work force overall, but only about 9 percent of the construction industry. In the fields of engineering and architecture, women make up only 11 percent and 20 percent of practicing engineers and architects, respectively, and many don’t continue on in their careers.

“We are making progress in integrating women in leadership roles in the construction and design trades, but to be honest, we still face some challenges,” says Lori Top, principal and design-build client manager for Burns & McDonnell.  “My field of architecture is fairly well represented at the university level, with about 49 percent women to 51 percent men. This percentage drops dramatically over time as female architects progress in their careers. The number of women in leadership roles is now at about 16 percent. Women are leaving the industry or being left out of leadership roles as their careers progress. This number really hasn’t moved much, even with a concerted push to correct this throughout the industry.”

 Top is grateful to work in a firm that she says “supports families with on-site day care,” and that “makes it a priority to provide opportunities for all professionals to pursue leadership roles,” though as a general rule, this probably isn’t the reality for many female professionals industry-wide.

“My own daughter is investigating a career in engineering, and the percentage of women pursuing engineering degrees is only between 18 and 20 percent,” Top said. “It is interesting that even with those percentages, she is no longer considered a minority. That is curious because it tells you how low the numbers had been. I would hate to see these small gains negate the need to work for more inclusivity. With key skills to help solve today’s and tomorrow’s problems, I hope the next generation of women will stand up to the challenge and push through the barriers to entry to this industry.”

Possibly due to the lingering “but we’ve always done it this way” attitude, another barrier that persists for women in these sectors is a reluctance by some employers to look at the longer term, and to invest adequately in rising talent. According to the Pew Research Center, the National Compensation Survey reports the construction sector as having among the lowest rates of access to paid family leave, at 6 percent, a likely deterrent for many women considering going into building as a career.

“Changes will have to be made, which are not easy,” says Susan Schaefer, senior project manager at JE Dunn Construction, the region’s largest general contractor. “Making accommodations in policy to help retain talented females does not make sense in the short term, which is how we often analyze situations. We see today’s cost and don’t think about the long-term bottom line loss when a female that we’ve trained, mentored, etc. for 10 years walks out the door to stay at home. Making short-term accommodations for a young mother to stay in the industry is peanuts compared to the rewards of having more diversity in our industry leaders.”


Not only is there a surge in female leadership within existing building industries, growth in female entrepreneurship in the construction industry is also showing significant expansion.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 13 percent of firms in that sector last year were women-owned. While that might not seem high, consider that through and since the recession, from 2007-2016, the number of women-owned firms overall increased 45 percent, compared to just a 9 percent increase in all businesses over that time period. The construction industry alone was among the top four industries showing an increase in women-owned firms, up 56 percent.

Top and McNamara would encourage women who aspire to lead to especially develop problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills. 

“I would tell a young woman that this is one of the hardest, most rewarding, draining, exciting industries you can work in,” says McNamara. “Set your goals and go for it; be ‘smart’ and know your stuff; get a thick skin; don’t give up; find ways to connect with other women in construction; be professional, as respect is earned; don’t be afraid to ask for help, clarifications, or to team up with others. I am so excited about our younger generation because they are so much more open to gender equality and have learned that jobs are open to both genders.”

In addition to working as a partner with Monarch Construction, Kounkel has been a founding partner for Centric Homes and Centric Projects, as well as founding and running Verity Construction Solutions—she has closely followed the female entrepreneur trend.

“The future of women in construction is bright,” says Kounkel. “As women continue to support and encourage other women, and young women see women succeed as leaders, there will be an increase is women owned companies as well as women throughout the professional ranks of organizations. Women should be confident in their knowledge and skills and not be afraid or hesitant to lead. What I would tell a young woman considering a career in the A/E/C industry is ‘Don’t be afraid to stand out.’ Often the best opportunities come when you get attention for not being like everyone else.” 

A Bright Future

“Women will always be a minority in the construction industry, just as men will always be a minority in the teaching industry,” says Schaefer.  “I am confident our presence at leadership tables will significantly increase in the next 10-20 years. Europe and Australia are years ahead of the U.S. in this regard, but we know it is possible.” 

Expanding the depth and reach of their skills and positive influence into how the building industries are led will depend on how the up-and-comers approach the challenges that face them. But the future appears to loom bright for the next generation of women builders considering a leadership career.

“Women out in the field today are always outnumbered by men, and there’s this push and pull involved with being accepted and respected,” says Leipard. “I think that will phase out and lessen over time, especially with a younger, less traditional generation entering the arena. There will also continue to be much opportunity for women in the business. If women push forward, get an education and develop the skills that they need, they will only multiply their opportunities.”

As Top puts it: “I can’t wait to see what’s next.”