Sharing the Wisdom of Women Warriors #3

The Even Stickier Ladder

First Published on March 25, 2016 by Shirley Ramos                                                                                                 
Co-founder of the Women Building Change Leadership Boot Camp

In a recent post, The Sticky Floor, we explored a few of the issues that keep potential women leaders in the construction industry from considering leadership opportunities, or at least cautious and skeptical that they have a real opportunity at moving up the ladder. Yet, many still strive to navigate the path to more responsibility, the ability to lead a team, and the possibility of making an impact in an industry that they can be passionate about.

For a small percentage of women construction leaders, climbing the ladder to superintendent, project manager and higher seems like a natural progression. Titles like senior project engineer and even C-level positions such as partner or owner become realities. For many, the ladder can seem even stickier than the “sticky floor” that they emerged from. The commitment and decision to work towards these decision-making roles can be fraught with barriers, obstacles and uncertainties – keeping strong potential leaders frustrated and tethered to the ladder.

Susan, an assistant PM in a large commercial construction company, had been hoping to become a PM for several years. Her conversations with her supervisor on the topic were few and somewhat indirect. Having worked for the company for over a decade, she had watched the project managers and understood the responsibilities required. She had even stepped in to manage large projects in the absence of the project manager – followed by accolades of what a great job she had done. She was being noticed, but still there was no serious talk of a promotion. Her inquiries about the opportunity were met with hesitation and another skill to master or the talk of it not being quite the right time. Susan had no idea how to pull her foot off the sticky rung that she was on.

I have heard Susan’s story several times, and from many different women in the construction field. She saw no clear path ahead of her. Mixed messages, confusion and indirect conversations kept Susan from being able to attain a position that she had the skills and ability to do. So what keeps the Susans, who have so much to offer, stuck on the sticky ladder?

  • The construction industry is still a male dominated industry. This isn’t a judgment; it is a reality. We expect to see men managing our job sites and although we continue to see more women in construction leadership roles, still, when a woman is in charge, we notice. This is a good thing. Although the evolution may be slow, the best way to create a stronger perception that women belong in construction leadership roles is to see more women achieving success in these roles.
  • The leadership criteria and expectations are unclear. This phenomena isn’t specific to the construction industry, but it severely impacts women’s ability to move up the ladder as construction leaders. Because there are no clear rules or defined steps in most construction companies to secure a project manager or other senior level position, it is difficult to know how to get ahead. A female estimator looking to move into project management shared with me her frustration, “If I knew the rules to the game, I could play it. Every time I think I understand what they are looking for from me, it seems to change, or there seems to be something else I need to do or something I am missing. I really don’t know what they want from me to get this promotion!”  The pathway may be equally as undefined for men, but they are more likely to be judged on their “potential” for the role and, as a result, the likelihood of being promoted is stronger. Because women are the more non-traditional choice for construction corporate or site leadership, they may be expected to perform and prove that they can do the job required, therefore keeping them stuck to the ladder rungs more securely and for longer periods of time. 
  • Men and women communicate and build relationships differently. The fact that only 9% of the people working in the construction industry are women infers that the majority of people making leadership promotion and advancement decisions in the industry are men. Again, this is not a judgment; it is a reality. We also know that men and women communicate and build relationships differently. This means that women and men perceive and understand things through different filters and lenses. There is research supporting the idea that women build understanding and communicate through face-to-face interactions. Women seek understanding through conversations and build strong relationships verbally. The same research proposes that men build relationships through doing things together or “side by side.” This communication style says “come along with me and we will get to know each other” and build trust by spending time together. We can see how these two different styles of communication and building understanding can keep women from connecting. Social considerations around how women and men should or shouldn’t interact in the workplace impact how much time men can spend “side by side” with women within the organization. I would suggest this is part of the reason that men want to see that a woman can handle the job – not because he thinks that she is not able to – but because he has a limited understanding of how women (as opposed to men) work and needs to better understand.

The good news is that there are strategies and actions that both women and men can consider as we work to increase the raw numbers of women in both the industry and in leadership roles within the industry.

  • Awareness. Increasing the level of awareness that there could be communication barriers and obstacles for women in the industry can be a game changer. If we know that communication and understanding challenges can exist, we begin to listen differently, and we observe and analyze interactions. The stats and data become compelling and we are willing to not only admit that the challenges exist, but that there are viable solutions to work toward.
  • Create structure and develop criteria for promotion and advancement. Making the path to promotion less ambiguous is a positive step in any organization and it supports both genders as they look to grow professionally. However, for women that are looking for advancement in the industry, understanding the required skills and experience provides them with both a roadmap to success and the ability to demonstrate the performance required to be seen as a viable candidate for a traditionally male role. The more criteria-based the path, the easier it is for a supervisor to coach and evaluate readiness—and for the potential leader to manage the professional growth required for promotion.
  • Implement and honor the change management process. This is not a “them vs us” issue. This isn’t about men thinking that women shouldn’t be leaders. This isn’t about women not having the skills. This is the evolution of how we have historically experienced the construction industry. The opportunities opening up for women are phenomenal and the experience, insight and leadership skills that women are bringing to the industry are changing the game. We need to be aware and patient through the process and understand that all change management processes are messy, full of awkward conversations and unsettling. The prize at the end makes it all worth it.

To potential women leaders in construction who want to get a “leg up” on the stickier ladder, the key is to communicate, ask for clarity, work through the issues, acknowledge that this is a marathon and not a sprint and … more than anything else… continue to climb that ladder powerfully through each and every sticky rung!

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