Women have made significant strides in construction since the “boys’ club” days of the past, making their mark in the industry and smashing gender stereotypes along the way. But there’s still much work to be done when it comes to retention and representation in leadership roles.
Mentorship programs have helped many women in construction get the support they need to advance their careers, but to really move the needle on the representation gap requires another important step. In order to make lasting and meaningful change, the industry will need to place greater emphasis on encouraging sponsorship.
A group of women construction leaders from around the world, recently gathered to discuss the positive impact sponsorships can have on careers, how they differ from mentorships, and share their own experiences moving up the construction career ladder. The expert panelists were part of Procore’s Foundations for Progress webinar: Unlock the Power of Sponsorships.
Here are some key highlights from that discussion:
How Mentorships Are Different From Sponsorships
A mentor relationship provides knowledge and support to a junior-level employee to help them find their footing and learn the ropes early in their career. They are a great resource for many, but in some cases they can be limited when it comes to creating long-term career growth.
Sponsorships, on the other hand, go beyond simply sharing advice and guidance. Sponsors put their own reputations on the line by providing sponsees with direct connections to managers or leaders with the decision making authority to offer a real opportunity for advancement.
“I think of sponsorship as being proactive; involving specific actions, whereas I think of mentorship as more passive advice,” explained Sandra Benson, Procore’s head of industry transformation and a National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) board member.
A big difference between mentorship and sponsorship is the stakes involved. A mentor puts little on the line in offering a junior employee some occasional words of wisdom, but a sponsor is risking their organizational capital, essentially putting their professional reputation in their sponsee’s hands. For this reason, sponsorship is not something to be taken lightly by either party involved.
Sponsors Don’t Have to Be Other Women
Some may have the perception that only women can sponsor other women, which is perfectly fine, but a sponsorship can actually have an even greater impact when a man steps up to sponsor a woman, particularly in a male-populated industry like construction.
Judaline Cassidy is the “Feminist Plumber” and founder of nonprofit Tools & Tiaras, whose aim is teaching women and young girls about construction trades for women. When Cassidy showed up for her first day of work as a plumber, the supervisor on the jobsite told her to get lost. She offered an interesting proposition: “Give me the opportunity today, and if it doesn’t work out you don’t have to pay me.”
She got the job, and a year later was once again rebuffed, this time at a company-sponsored class to help employees join the union. One of the instructors told Cassidy she should “go home and do the dishes instead.”
Undeterred, Cassidy continued doing what she does best. Soon after, she met Brian Totora, who took her under his wing and taught her how to excel in her craft, teaching her that the way to beat them at their own game was to be the best plumber she could be. The two became close, and eventually he put her name out there as someone who knows her stuff.
“Brian spoke to someone, who spoke to someone, that spoke to another someone, and I got into the union and became the first woman in that local. But the same person who did not let me in became my biggest champion. He became the person who told everybody that this girl is a great plumber,” recalled Cassidy.
Creating a Culture of Respect and Confidence
Each year, the Women in Design and Construction (WIDAC), polls women about their biggest barrier to success in the industry. Every year the number one answer overwhelmingly comes back as confidence.
“WIDAC strives to create a community where men and women in the industry can come together and actually talk about their roles, the idea being that building up that network of like-minded individuals can be a potent force in helping people overcome their insecurities or that imposter syndrome when stepping into a new role,” says Sara Cecchi, Global General Manager, Technology at DBM VIRCON, who volunteers as IT General Manager for WIDAC.
Another issue that directly relates to confidence is respect, and the companies that work to cultivate a respectful corporate culture find they’ve created the optimal environment for sponsor relationships to flourish.
Similar to Cassidy’s experience, Cecchi recalls a sexist incident she encountered at work where a male employee said she should “be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.” Then a young grad, Cecchi laments the fact that the acute mixture of hurt and embarrassment she felt stopped her from standing up for herself.
“In that moment if someone else, man or woman, had stepped up and said ‘that’s not really appropriate’, it would have changed things, it would have built my own confidence,” recalled Cecchi.
Christina Riley, Senior Planner for Quinn London, has a uniquely complete perspective on the gender confidence gap. Having transitioned to female eight years ago, she’s seen the industry from both a male and female point of view.
She recalled a course for women in construction she attended during her previous job, and remembers being struck by how this diverse group of women, all at different career stages, were all wracked by the same insecurities about themselves and their role within the industry.
“It was a real eye opener. What struck me at the time was that it wasn’t the women who should have been there, it was the men. Because if they could see how women felt about the culture of the industry going through all tiers of their careers they would be just as shocked as I was,” said Riley.
Male Allies Are Not Just Wanted, They’re Needed
Even though women are fully capable of working any role in construction, they are frequently passed over when it comes to trade or executive roles. Today, women in the US make up just 10.9% of the construction workforce, and only 2.5% of tradespeople are women, with nearly 90% of women in construction working office jobs.
Because men so overwhelmingly dominate the trades, their influence carries disproportionate weight when it comes to putting a name forward as their sponsor. This means to bring about the kind of change sponsorship can help catalyze within the industry, it is essential that men are rallied to the cause.
“I think we can acknowledge that change is actually needed, and that we really truly need our male allies who are in these positions to really change, because it can’t happen without them,” said Cassidy.