Long standing barriers to women participating in certain traditional “male” occupations have been slowly breaking down for decades. In many cases change is most extensive where technology dominates the means and methods used by nearly everyone in that industry. Few areas of the economy have been more resistant to the integration of women into the workforce than in construction. And as with any broader industrial framework, portions of the industry have advanced far more quickly than others. In general, the skilled technical trades involved with electrical and IT infrastructure has advanced more quickly than have iron-work and masonry.
Some differences can be accounted for by the growth of Building Information Modeling (BIM) which has become indispensable to progressive construction methods, especially electrical and mechanical systems design and construction. The knowledge and competencies associated with BIM are closely related to those of Computer Assisted Design (CAD) central to AEC for almost two generations. In the US and Europe, women make up nearly 40 percent of the rosters of architectural and engineering firms. The generation of women who did front-line battle in the 70s and 80s for their place in the AEC workforce paved the way for subsequent generations to take their places with little noise or fanfare.
Progress for women has been slower among construction companies than among the architects and engineers; but skilled women who bring knowledge of BIM and 3-D modeling to electrical construction are finding work and making places for themselves on the design teams of electrical contractors. Indeed, demand for the modeling skill set is such that enterprising women have turned to BIM for a second, more lucrative career.
The career path of Linda Chisholm is especially illustrative. Relatively new to Guarantee, which boasts an average tenure of 17 years, she is a veteran design professional who began her career with Sverdrup Corporation (now Jacobs Engineering Group) in the 1980s. The daughter of an electrical engineer, Chisholm pursued certification in mechanical drawing and became among the earliest adopters of computer-assisted design, serving as both practitioner and as a skills trainer on Autocad starting in 1986. As a CAD professional, she was able to run her own design practice, freelancing for a number of years on behalf of a diversity of engineering and industrial clients. Her sole proprietorship enabled her to maintain a home office and raise five children, even as she gradually migrated entirely over to the construction industry working for prominent general and specialty subcontractors placing her focus on electrical design from 1999 onward.
Coming to Guarantee Electrical Company was an opportunity for Linda to focus in depth on electrical design and advanced 3-D BIM modeling in particular. “I’ve always had a preference for working on construction and seeing projects through building, rather than just focusing on the design per-se. I wanted to come to Guarantee,” she says, “for the experience of working at the cutting edge of what modeling can do. And there’s nothing in design is as satisfying as to see your work standing as-built and perfectly realizing your model.”
Asked about the changes she’s seen in the treatment of women in Engineering and in construction, Chisholm observed that when she started very few women had any role in either discipline. However, her expertise with CAD was also rare for men or women involved in drafting and design, so there wasn’t the resistance. “I got my start in part because of my Dad’s encouragement. But I also just really liked doing it. Training others on the computer, only happened because there simply weren’t enough of us, and the work was very productive. Now with 3-D, it’s fun, it’s interesting, and it helps us help our guys build smarter and faster.”
The presence of women is still uncommon in electrical construction, however, Guarantee Electrical Company is changing that, especially where traditional trades culture is deep and runs in families. However, if you ask Julie Parker how she came to be involved in construction, she’ll tell you that it was an easy choice for her to become a third generation electrician. She says she followed the usual path through high school to college, but found that she got restless working at a desk, and much preferred having a “hands-on” occupation like her father and grandfather before her.
Asked about the challenges of working in construction as a woman she reports that after eight years at Guarantee, she has no complaints about her life as a female electrician. “It’s still a man’s world,” she readily admits, “but I think Guarantee is leading the change in the electrical field. It’s still rare to have more than one or two women on the crew of any particular job. But I’ve seen it more at Guarantee and have never had a problem with my male co-workers. At Guarantee, it’s always been about asking questions when you don’t know something. And they answer my questions, whenever I have them.”
In fact, she says, it wasn’t until she joined an IBEW Facebook Group, and had a chance hear through social media how different conditions can be in other places that “I discovered, just how good we have it at Guarantee.” Parker will tell you it also helps to have the advantage of being specialists in prefabrication, which has created a lot of demand for Guarantee’s capabilities, especially in healthcare construction.
Additionally women are being promoted into leadership roles. As a newly promoted Foreman in GECO’s prefabrication department, she’s proud of the specialty. “Our prefab know-how keeps us in demand.” It’s also proved to be an advantage for delivering consistently high productivity with safety in fast-track hospital construction.
“All the trades come in to our prefab facility to do their thing,” says Parker. “Every trade takes their turn. Fitters provide the med gas plumbing. Carpenters assemble the frames. And we supply both the power and the low voltage wiring.” The end product is perfectly uniform hospital headwalls, pre-staged and precision pre-assembled in a controlled factory environment for just-in-time delivery to the jobsite as the project schedule requires.
As President – Missouri Branch, David Gralike attributes the growing presence of women at Guarantee Electrical to taking an industry leadership role by focusing on diversity and inclusion as well as the fact that new methods and technologies require a diverse workforce. “Female electricians and technicians have proven that they have what it takes to succeed in this business,” says Gralike. “The women of Guarantee possess great intelligence combined with the ability to stay focused on details.
Our female supervisors excel at listening, nurturing, and, most importantly, persuading crews to perform at peak efficiency. As leaders, they possess the unique ability to assemble the facts, discover the patterns, solve problems and make connections – literally and figuratively. We’re glad to have them in our company; they’ve made us smarter and more flexible, and they contribute every day to our success as a company.”