Sharing the Wisdom of Women Warriors #1

Sticky Floor, Stickier Ladder and the Glass Ceiling

First Published on March 10, 2016 by Shirley Ramos                                                                                                 
Co-founder of the Women Building Change Leadership Boot Camp

In previous blogposts, I had the opportunity to share the stories of how women experience the construction industry and the challenges they meet, both real and perceived. Women struggle to be seen as credible in an industry where they only represent 9% of all employees, according to OSHA. The “show me you can do it” expectation for women at all levels in the industry delays their advancement as they struggle to prove their abilities. At the same time, they’re competing against men who just “naturally” possess the right skills (or at least that’s what everyone assumes). An underlying real, yet unconscious, gender bias keeps women as an anomaly in the industry, with their ability to be fully engaged doubtful when stacked up against family and other priorities.

The good news is that women leaders in the construction industry are passionate about what they do. They love their work, the clients, the business, the creating, the building; they love it all. Construction Dive Magazine features seven amazingly successful women in a feature article, Bridging the Gap. In the midst of the challenges, there are women who achieve their goals despite the challenges and navigate the journey. They manage through the sticky floor and the stickier ladder to bust through the glass ceiling.

The sticky floor phenomenon has been described as women’s career blocks, corporate barriers to women’s promotion, and other middle-management bottlenecks that keep women—fully capable of leadership—stuck near the bottom half of the ladder. These barriers can be real or perceived, self-imposed or overt in the organization, but they are essentially the justifications, reasonings, and assumptions that hold a potentially great woman leader from moving forward.

The even stickier ladder refers to the obstacles and barriers for potential and identified leaders. In the construction industry this often presents itself through the assumptions or underlying biases of both women and men. An assistant project manager shared a conversation with a senior PM, “…you do a great job as assistant PM. Becoming a PM though would require you to be focused on your work, and with your children at home…”  Logically it is hard to reconcile this type of seemingly overt bias, but the assumption that women would not be willing or able to manage their work and their family is more prevalent that you may think. Leadership styles also play a part in moving up the sticky ladder.  Being assertive and strong gets things accomplished in the complex and dynamic construction environments. How women are perceived when they are assertive and strong (i.e., overly “aggressive”), still creates challenges for this male dominated industry.

The glass ceiling refers to interface between the top rungs of the ladder, where the top and most coveted positions reside. Current research shows that across all industries, there has been great improvement in the numbers of women that hold mid-level management positions. The existing gaps lies in the percentage of women who move into more strategic positions. Within larger industry firms, for example, this could be the project manager role. Senior engineers, senior architects and positions that have VP, partner or other high-level leadership titles fall into this category. Whether it is women self-selecting to not push through the barrier, or the industry that’s holding them back, this is a real phenomenon.

“Experts have pointed to the lack of women at all levels of the industry as one of the main factors contributing to the ongoing labor shortage,” according to Construction Dive Magazine. This lack of women significantly impacts not only the pool of capable women candidates for leadership within the industry, but also the support and understanding of how to actually navigate as an aspiring women leader.

This series of articles will explore each of the phenomena’s individually: sticky floor, stickier ladder and the glass ceiling – and specifically, how women in the construction industry experience them. Knowledge is power. By understanding the journey, the components that are in our control and those that are not, women can be more confident in their paths as they aspire to lead in construction.

Interested in exploring these areas more? Learn more about the Women Building Change Leadership Boot Camp here.