Women in Construction: Why the Industry Needs More Women Leaders

It’s still one of the most male-dominated industries. But what can be done to increase the number of women in the industry? What challenges and opportunities are there?

As part of our Alpin Women initiative, we interviewed several influential women to find out. Here are their insights about the industry and what the future looks like.

Let’s dive right in.

Why we want to create change in the construction industry

In the US, women make up about 9.1% of the construction industry. Industry-wide, they are a clear minority in the industry and most women in construction work in the sales and office sectors rather than on construction projects.

At the same time, the industry faces several major challenges. Diversity is needed now more than ever to bring in different insights and experiences. Just think about it: Construction is one of the least efficient industries in the world. It’s also one of the industries that’s most resistant to technological change.

It’s clear that change is needed. But how? With our initiative, Alpin Women, we aim to be a part of this change.

What is the Alpin Women initiative?

It all started when we realized that our female consultants often experienced setbacks because of their gender. They weren’t always being taken seriously. From time to time, their technical knowledge and qualifications were questioned.

After having brainstormed with the team on what initiatives we could implement at Alpin, we came up with the Alpin Women network, which aims to reinvent gender diversity in the construction industry.

Alpin Women is chaired by our Business Development Manager, Camille Hubert. With this initiative, we hope to help change the misconception that construction is a male-oriented industry, and work more proactively for women in the industry.

What is the goal of Alpin Women?

Our goal with Alpin Women is to fight stereotypes, give women the power to take on more responsibilities and leadership roles, and include women in the decision-making process. We also aim to inspire future generations and decrease the gender gap in the construction sector.

We do all this by supporting each other and discussing relevant challenges that women face. For example, with articles like the one you’re reading right now, we want to spread awareness and work for a more equal industry.

Influential women in the construction industry

For this article, we interviewed women in the construction industry to get a take on what the industry looks like in different geographical areas and for women of different seniority levels. One thing is clear: They’re all contributing to making a change in the industry. And we are amazed at all the insights they shared with us. Let’s take a look at who they are.

Holley Chant

Director of Sustainability and Environment, Confidential Gigaproject, Saudi Arabia

Holley has more than 20 years of senior leadership experience in the construction industry.  As a New York University and Harvard University graduate, Holley started her career in the US and Europe before relocating to the Middle East.

In her current role, she leads sustainability and environment for a new giga city in the Middle East. She previously built up the sustainability practice at a consulting firm and recruited and mentored a 41-person team. As the Estimada Planning Manager at Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, Holley played a key role in launching the GCC’s first mandatory sustainability compliance initiative.

Holley has also acted as the Chairwoman, Judge, or Speaker at 50+ conferences and architectural competitions, and she mentors women in the construction industry.

Charlotte Sturgis

Managing Director, Head of Construction, Rose Associates, Inc.

Charlotte is a development and construction executive with a long list of experiences and merits. After graduating from the University of Florida, Charlotte went on to work as a Project Manager, Development Manager (overseeing the vertical construction of the Boy Scouts’ Jamboree facilities, a multimillion dollar project that was built from scratch and included award-winning elements), and finally, Managing Director (Construction and now, Head of Construction).

In her current position, Charlotte oversees the Construction Department for a luxury residential real estate firm that has completed $2B in new development. Charlotte also mentors women in the industry.

Mariana Aoun

Senior Manager, Meinhardt Group

Mariana is an architect and project manager in Dubai. After having finished her studies in Italy and Lebanon, Mariana went on to work on overseeing the renovation of old low-rise buildings in Italy. She was eventually asked to move to Dubai, where she currently oversees multimillion dollar projects.

Sadaf Ghalib

Sustainability Analyst, Alpin Limited

Sadaf started her career in architecture and design. Before joining Alpin as a Sustainability Analyst, she achieved a second Master’s degree and worked with Curtin University (Perth, WA) as a Design Associate as part of the Greater Curtin Master Plan 2030, which aims to help the University reduce its carbon footprint and environmental impact through sustainable design measures. Having lived in various countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and Australia, Sadaf has been a part of projects from design to construction and execution and she has a thorough understanding of what the industry looks like in these different geographical areas.

Nour Mousa

Sustainability Consultant, Alpin Limited

Nour’s background is in architecture and engineering. As a Senior Sustainability Consultant, she is responsible for project supervision and inventory. After having worked for a year as an architect, Nour switched to sustainability, her passion. This diverse experience gives her a good understanding of different areas of the industry.

What challenges do women in construction face today?

What are the biggest hurdles for women in construction? After all, BigRentz reports that 73% of women in construction feel passed over for roles because of their gender. 47% have never worked with a female manager. Only 7.5% of all construction managers are women. And women have a higher risk of injury due to poorly-fitted equipment. What do these challenges look like for women who work in the industry? Let’s find out.

Some of the biggest challenges mentioned by the women we interviewed are linked to insufficient support of working mothers, as well as stereotypes and restrictions in recruiting. Plus, the demands on how women behave are often stricter than what’s expected of men. According to Holley:

“You very quickly understand that there are stereotypes about women, particularly in the media, that are just not grasping the entire picture of the change that’s happening. If you just characterize women as not having any way to take advantage of empowerment or to empower themselves, that means we’re actually missing part of the great strength that all women have particularly in construction. You just can’t be a woman in construction without having tremendous resilience and a drive.”

Women don’t necessarily get the same recognition as men. Women’s abilities are often undervalued and discrimination and harassment aren’t unheard of.

According to Mariana, “From time to time it’s not easy to work in this field as a woman. The majority of construction engineers are men and they aren’t used to seeing women around, especially when it comes to making decisions, to meetings, to taking action. Some men don’t realize that men and women have the same knowledge. Sometimes when I’m on-site, I’ll step into meetings with more than 20 men.”

Nour has similar experiences. “I enter a meeting room that is full of men and I’m the only woman out of 20 people. I don’t always feel that they understand what I’m doing there. Usually, people just expect that you stay at home raising kids or maybe work in the office as an administrator or a designer. There is also a lack of mentorship because we don’t see other women in this industry,”

Sadaf recounts one of her first experiences working on a project: “I was involved in a project where I was helping the main project manager. The biggest challenges I faced when I was in that position was getting my point across a room full of men.”

And as Mariana puts it: “You know how they say, “You have to act like a lady, but think like a man”! This is very true in our industry.”

Unfortunately, women often stay in the background and don’t advance from administrative or backend roles to more hands-on, on-site opportunities. “I see a lot of women architects stay in the office instead of going to construction sites. This part of the work can be very difficult to handle and it will take a big part of your personal life,” says Mariana.

But the picture isn’t coherent everywhere. Charlotte, who has built her career in the US, mentions that in her experience, ageism is the real problem.

“I have throughout my career struggled more with ageism than sexism. Contractors want people who can get them answers, and they want them to get them the right answers quickly. In that situation, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

At the same time, Sadaf, who has worked in both Australia and the Middle East, saw the same types of problems in both cultures.

“Though there are several cultural differences that set the two places apart, the challenges for women are more or less similar,” she says.

Why the construction industry needs more women

Why does the construction industry need more women?

According to a study by McKinsey, companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability. They were also 27% more likely to have superior value creation. At the same time, companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnic or cultural diversity were 29% less likely to achieve above-average profitability than other companies in the study.

In light of these results, it’s clear that a more diverse workforce could help the construction industry thrive. And because women still tend to have to work harder for their accomplishments, they are often extremely driven. As Holley explains it:

“It’s a unique and powerful time in history to work with all these very ambitious, interesting, bright, and strong, young women in Saudi Arabia. They’re an amazing, very diverse group of women who are just breaking into employment at all different levels.”

But while the industry needs more women, why should women join it?

One of the main reasons for women to enter the construction industry is the purpose it brings them. By working on construction projects, they get the chance to be a part of creating something that will last.

For example, Sadaf was initially inspired by seeing a landmark being built. “I was raised in Malaysia in the 90s when major development projects were taking place all over the country. And every day we used to pass by a huge construction site, the Petronas Towers. So I actually grew up watching the towers being built. This experience was very inspiring and I believe it motivated me to pursue a career in the construction industry as a professional who can design such inspiring structures and make them come to life. Working on projects from start to finish and witnessing your designs come to life is extremely satisfying for me,” she says.

Plus, several women mention how much potential there is for women in the industry. Yes, in some meetings, they will be the only woman in the room, but an increasing number of women are taking on leadership roles.

Not to forget the fun side of the industry. As Charlotte explains it:

“You do something different every day, there are different problems and different solutions. You’re running between floors, you move between projects. You’re continuously learning. The industry is always evolving, so just staying up to date with that means you’re always growing.”

Finally, by joining the construction industry, women get to be a part of a changing and evolving industry. The construction sector has always been slow to change, but change is happening.

What can be done to increase the number of women in construction?

One thing is clear:

There’s a lot that can be done to make the construction industry more equal. What are some concrete measures that can be taken? Here you go:

Promoting more women to leadership positions

The simplest solution? Promoting more women to leadership positions. Not only will this increase the number of women in leadership in the construction industry, but it will also improve the recruitment of women in the industry. “Companies should appoint more women. My wish is to see a big team of ladies running a huge project!” Says Mariana.

Nour agrees. “If more women are taken on as, for example, project directors, people will get a lot more perspective. We have to respect and follow her leadership.”

Mentorship programs

One of the most impactful ways to give women more opportunities is to create mentorship programs. Thanks to positive examples, more women will enter the industry and go further in their careers. For example, mentorship is important to both Holley and Charlotte, who are active mentors and involved in different mentorship programs.

Parenting policies

Another way to help women advance in their careers is to set up parenting policies, like nurseries and flex time. Now, sometimes flex time policies can be challenging in an industry that requires on-site visits. But as Holley puts it:

“All employers are probably not able to provide nurseries or flex time as the construction industry typically isn’t the easiest industry to do flex time. An employer really needs to go out of their way to develop and embrace a culture that trusts their people to work well with flex time, which requires a culture of trust and we don’t always see that in the construction industry. In some roles, you’re running a construction site, so you have to be on site. There’s going to be a limit to how much you can flex if you’re in a job like that.

But of course there are ways to adapt roles so that women don’t have to be on site six days a week, that they could be there five or four days. It’s mainly just a thing of being committed to developing standards so that there’s still a guarantee that the client is going to have seamless service.”

Recruitment

Another tool that can be used to create change is recruitment. For example, educating younger generations about the possibilities in the construction industry can be used to increase the number of women in the industry. Outreach programs could be effective for bringing in more women, as Charlotte explains:

“To get more women into the construction industry, there needs to be more of an outreach program that educates women about how this is a career they can do. It’s about opening women’s eyes to the opportunities that are there. One of my mentors, an adjunct professor, brings in women in the construction industry to one of his classes. What I see during those discussions is that there’s a concern about how women will be treated in the industry. But what it comes down to is: As long as you’re competent and a hard worker, it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man. You are going to be successful.”

Fighting stereotypes and discrimination

And finally, employers can do more to fight stereotypes and discrimination. For example, education is a good way to create change.

At the same time, most women stress that the industry is changing for the better, even if change is often slow. As Holley puts it:

“In the Gulf, there has been a change in our industry, but you can’t say that change has been equal across companies or sectors. You see more women on site, you see women leading initiatives that in the past, they wouldn’t have.”

“In my prior role at KEO, I did a lot of public speaking as well as managing my projects and team. Occasionally women would come up to me and say, “Oh, you know, I love listening to you. How are you doing it all?” But that’s the thing: Some days I just go, “This is really hard.” And all I can do is start again tomorrow. Self-management skills like determination, faith, gratitude, and good self-discipline are something that everyone needs in every industry, but particularly in our industry, if you want to really, really push for change.”

Want to learn more about women in construction?

That’s it, now you know what the construction industry looks like for women. There are challenges, yes. And much can and should be done to overcome them. However, there are also a lot of possibilities for women in the construction sector.

One thing is clear: The industry needs women in order to thrive.

Want to learn more about our work to help women in the construction industry advance in their careers? Learn more about Alpin here.