As far back as she can remember, Sarah Epifano says she never felt being a female was a disadvantage, a perspective her father, a civil engineer, helped solidify early in her life.
“My father had five girls before he had his boy, and he treated us like we were boys,” recalls Epifano, Skanska USA’s Senior Director of Business Development. “The benefit of that was we grew up believing we could do anything if we set our mind to it. He didn’t see the barriers, so I didn’t see them either.”
“We grew up believing we could do anything if we set our mind to it. He [my father] didn’t see the barriers, so I didn’t see them either.”
Although she was initially set on a career in fashion design, her father pushed her to go to architecture school where he believed she’d have more opportunities.
Epifano quickly saw that she was part of a minority in the career she was pursuing. Only six of the 60 students in her graduating class were women.
“I realized in school that when you’re in the minority, you are highly visible. This can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you make of it. It’s only a disadvantage if you make it a disadvantage. In some cases, it absolutely was an advantage,” says Epifano.
Thriving in Construction
During architecture school, summer internships at Turner Construction Company in Boston helped her discover that the architect’s path was not for her. A year after graduation Epifano found herself in an operations role for Turner’s New York City-based construction group. She thrived in this fast-paced environment and was ultimately moved to Connecticut to start a local division in Norwalk.
Soon thereafter, a developer client of her’s offered Epifano a job overseeing projects for their company. When the 1989 recession took hold, she joined Sordoni Construction, which had just been purchased by Skanska.
Over the next several years, Epifano helped grow the newly formed Connecticut office to about 30 people. Seeking a change, she took a step back to part-time before becoming a full time mother. A decade later, a newly-divorced Epifano decided to rejoin the workforce.
A Second Chapter
Epifano started a small construction company of her own and eventually ran into Stu Graham, a former boss and mentor, who had ascended the ranks at Skanska to become Chairman of the Board. Graham suggested she reach out to the New York office, where she found a number of former colleagues working.
“Luckily for me, they let me back in. It wasn’t easy or quick. They offered me a job, and I was waiting for a letter. The letter never came, and I was told it wasn’t in the budget, so I had to go through the process all over again. I wasn’t willing to take no for an answer. I had taken no for an answer the year before at a different company. Having been out of sales in the construction industry for 13 years and out of NYC for 30 years.”
“I just had to keep knocking harder, and they let me in.”
Though exposed to Professional Women in Construction (PWC) early on in her career, Epifano chose not to get involved back then.
“I didn’t want to make any more noise than I was making by my own visibility,” explains Epifano.
PWC was founded in 1980 with the goal of supporting women’s advancement in architecture, engineering, and construction.
When she found herself back at Skanska, the company had just launched its internal women’s network. They were looking for women to help lead the initiative, and Epifano submitted her name for consideration. However, she quickly withdrew out of an abundance of caution to “be mindful of boundaries” having recently returned to the company.
One of the founders personally called Epifano and urged her to join. She did.
“My real purpose in my second chapter here is to reach out my hand to other women and move them along. Even though I didn’t feel any disadvantage, I could see other women experiencing that. I could see women still weren’t advanced to the upper ranks of the company,” says Epifano.
“I felt like, I have a platform, I have a voice, why wouldn’t I use that? That was what propelled me to get involved with PWC, and what also got me more interested in the idea of advancing women than I ever thought I was,” explains Epifano, who joined PWC’s Board of Directors in 2018.
“Obstacles Only As Big As You Make Them”
Even in less than a decade back at Skanska, Epifano has already noticed a big shift in the balance of gender equity at the company, especially in the last three years.
“When I joined in 2012, the group that was running our organization was all white males between the ages of 45–55, about nine or 10 of them. Today, the group is a bit larger than that, but it’s over 40 percent women. A lot of the women occupying those positions came up through leadership positions in the Skanska Women’s Network.”
“You just have to fake it til you make it; you just have to believe you deserve to be there. If you don’t think you deserve to be there, they’ll eat you alive.”
She recalled a conversation years ago with Stu Graham, who asked her how she handled being the only woman in a room full of men.
“My response at the time was, if you’re around a dog and you are afraid of that dog, the adrenaline starts to flow, and they can smell it. You just have to fake it til you make it; you just have to believe you deserve to be there. If you don’t think you deserve to be there, they’ll eat you alive.”
As for what she’d tell young women pursuing a career in construction:
“Don’t be afraid, and keep putting one foot in front of the other. There are obstacles, but they’re only as big as you make them.”