Female business owners are making their mark in a traditionally male-dominated industry
With so many people and businesses opting to make Arizona their home over the past half century, the state’s building and construction trades have understandably boomed. And over that same span of time, the construction industry itself has seen some remarkable evolutionary changes—both nationally and in Arizona.
In a field that was once the sole province of men, women are increasingly turning up, donning hardhats and tool belts, and taking charge everywhere from the job site to the board room.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women have made significant gains in finding jobs in the construction industry over the past few decades—but the numbers are still off-kilter. In 2016, for example, the total number of U.S. construction workers was 10,328,000 and, of that number, just under a million were women.
While this might seem a significant gap in comparison, keep in mind that several decades ago, women were statistically nonexistent in the building and construction trades (“Rosie the Riveter” and her ilk were, for the most part, a wartime anomaly).
But following a more recent trend, women aren’t merely going to work for male-owned construction companies; they’re increasingly showing up as owners of their own companies, taking on the reins for everything from roofing and road surfacing, to sheet-rocking and plumbing.
So, over time, how has that evolution played out? How are women in building and construction faring?
Carol Hagen is one Phoenix-area businesswoman who can speak with authority—and from a “big picture” perspective—on the issue of women in construction. In addition to running Hagen Business Systems Inc., a software development company that focuses on construction-related technology needs, for the past 18 years, Hagen has been an active member of the Greater Phoenix chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), and has spent some time on its board of directors.
Formed in 1953, NAWIC is a national organization whose charter is, simply, “to enhance the success of women in the construction industry.” Local chapter membership means involvement in one’s own career, the construction industry and the local community.
Through a series of educational events, seminars, networking functions and volunteer opportunities in chapters throughout the country, NAWIC has advanced the cause of women in construction and supported their efforts to find parity in an industry that’s long been dominated by men.
“It’s really a roll-up-your-sleeves sort of organization,” Hagen says. “All of the chapters are heavily involved with women helping one another with their careers and performing a wide range of community service projects. NAWIC does lots and lots of ‘give-back.’ ”
Hagen says one of the reasons we’re seeing more and more women in construction is because of the diversity of opportunities it presents. “As a woman, you might start out as a bookkeeper or a crane operator, or for that matter even a ditch digger, and then move into a project administrator slot,” she explains. “And then they might bring you back into the office as an operations manager. I don’t think there’s another industry that offers so many varied opportunities and pays as well as construction does.”
Yolanda Chap couldn’t agree more. She and her husband Ray Chap own and operate Empire Homes Inc., a Sonoita-based excavation and sand-and-gravel company that’s been serving Sonoita and its neighboring cities and towns for the past 30 years. When she joined her husband in running their business about 15 years ago, Chap faced a kind of “double whammy.” Not only was she a woman entering the traditionally male-dominated construction field as a business owner, she was also a Hispanic woman.
She knew she was flouting Hispanic tradition by taking up a profession that might be what she terms “un-ladylike,” but Chap says she was undeterred in her desire to work alongside her husband.
“When he invited me to join him in the business, I wasn’t intimidated at all—I wasn’t as concerned about men in this business who might be ‘macho.’ I was more concerned about learning the trade, and the way I overcame their doubts was through my own perseverance,” she says.
Nevertheless, Chap admits there was a learning curve, made steeper by the fact that she was, after all, a woman working in an atypical business that was entirely new to her.
“In the beginning, when men would call for service or advice about a project, they would always ask for my husband,” Chap explains. “So I saw it as an opportunity to learn my business well enough so I could prove to the men that I could serve them with as much knowledge as my husband. Now when they call, they trust me to give them the answers they’re looking for.”
Asked if she thinks that there’s been progress in her industry regarding women, she’s quick to reply. “Things have changed—gotten easier—for women. Today, it’s more acceptable, more common that ladies are driving trucks, running backhoes or doing whatever, and men accept that.”
But if there was any gender bias from the men she encountered on a daily basis, it didn’t faze her. “I don’t really see any of this bias,” she says, of her dealings with men. “The point is, we offer good-quality materials, good-quality work and good people who do the work.” That, in her mind, erases any attitude issues that might otherwise crop up.
“More times than not, I receive compliments from the men [clients] that I deal with,” she says. “They tell me ‘I like the way that you do business’ and, to me, that’s all I think I should be concerned about.”
An evolving industry
Kathy Nieto and Kathy Lyle are co-owners of another Tucson-based construction-related business. Founded in 1989, Interior Trends Remodel and Design is a kitchen, bathroom and residential remodeling firm doing both large and small projects throughout Tucson and the surrounding communities. Nieto got her start in construction when she was quite young, working in her family’s commercial plumbing and mechanical contracting business.
“Back in the old days, it was more difficult to be a woman in construction,” she says. “Today, everyone is more educated and friendly to women who are in unconventional types of industries. If we do encounter any gender bias today, it’s very rare. Things are significantly better than they used to be in, say, the 1970s and ’80s.”
Both Nieto and Lyle believe that, in the long term, one of the most significant differences women will bring to the design and construction industry is in the “look” and function of those designs.
“When you go back to the ’50s and ’60s,” Nieto says, “most of the design was done by men—male architects and builders. Because of that, a lot of design has a distinct look and function. Kitchens, for instance, were considerably smaller, and so were closets. Women have influenced some radical changes in those traditional designs.”
Lyle agrees. “Women are ‘nesters’ and have some distinctly different viewpoints than men regarding the function of a house. Women’s voices are heard now,” she adds.
Nieto is optimistic about the future of women working in the construction field, saying it’s an open avenue for any woman to get involved in. And while Lyle agrees, she understands women may still have a few uphill challenges to overcome.
“Putting interior design together with construction is a little harder for women, particularly because we have to prove ourselves to our clients on the construction side,” she says. “A typical male contractor is a little more hesitant to trust our knowledge, but we’re used to it—it comes with the deal. I will say that it’s gotten so much better than it used to be.”
By Bruce Farr
Photography by Mark Lipczynski