Kimberly Llewellyn got started early in construction.
“My first job was being my dad’s helper,” remembers Llewellyn, a senior product manager for emerging markets at Mitsubishi Electric Trane in Austin, Texas, with two teenage boys of her own. “He was an engineer and a do-it-yourselfer, and so every weekend we worked on repairs and projects. He just assumed my sister and I would be able to do math—and he was right. My sister became a math teacher, and I became an engineer.”
These days, Llewellyn supports construction projects of all sizes at Mitsubishi Electric, where she specializes in high performance buildings. In a typical week, she might review HVAC load calculations for a multifamily building; brainstorm IAQ and space conditioning solutions with architects and engineers; discuss codes, standards, and practices for passive house projects with colleagues; and provide technical support to research teams involved in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Building Construction initiatives.
It’s a demanding job with a diverse set of responsibilities, and Llewellyn says she loves it.
At the same time, she is a bit of an outlier as a woman in construction. In 2020, 10.9% of the 10.8 million people employed in the U.S. construction industry were women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“I don’t avoid talking about gender issues, because they are real and I don’t want to minimize or belittle anyone’s trials, because they are real,” Llewellyn says. “But I can’t make generalizations. I can only speak to my experience.”
Career Path in Construction
Despite her childhood training at her father’s side, Llewellyn didn’t join the world of housing and building manufacturing right away. After graduating from Vassar College, she studied theater in Russia and waited tables in New York City before deciding to get her master’s degree in environmental engineering at Columbia University.
She started in the field as an energy rater for Positive Energy, a building science consulting engineering firm in Austin, Texas. “I have gone through hundreds of buildings as an energy rater and consultant, hanging from attic rafters and inching through crawl spaces to understand how buildings work,” she says. “I think that field-based energy experience at my very first job was critical in instilling a lifelong appreciation of the complexity of buildings and of the skilled trades who do quality work on them.”
That background continues to inform her work today at Mitsubishi Electric. “I always keep my feet on the ground because there is no out-thinking field reality,” she says. “It’s really easy to simplify things on paper. When we are developing designs, plan sets, or policies, it’s easy to make it look like the solutions are simple. But when you see the inconsistencies and differences between the design and the reality of actual buildings which have countless variables and inconsistencies, you realize these are complex problems.”
But Llewellyn, who is deeply concerned about climate change, is dedicated to solving the challenges of responsible energy use, durability, health and resiliency in construction. “Our built environment has such a huge impact on our biosphere, and if we don’t make it more sustainable, we don’t stand a chance.”
How to Succeed as a Woman in Construction
The engineer sounds similarly pragmatic when she’s asked what it’s like to be a woman working in the construction industry. “What I’ve found is that if I go into a situation expecting to meet an adversary, then I will,” she says. “If I go in with the intent of aligning my goals with theirs, then it goes well.”
That doesn’t mean Llewellyn hasn’t experienced inappropriate comments or dismissive attitudes toward women in construction during her career. She encountered significant bias during her time in graduate school for engineering, where an admissions officer assumed she couldn’t score high enough on the math GREs. And while she’s been “little ladied” on more than one job site, she finds the gender bias in academic elite and engineering circles to be more prevalent than in construction.
But those awkward and challenging situations faced by many women in construction haven’t been enough to deter Llewellyn from what she considers her life’s work of making our built environment more sustainable.
“I don’t want to be defined by that—I am on a mission,” she says. “I recognize I’m a fighter and a strong personality and I am grateful to my mother and grandmothers who modeled this behavior. As women, we need to bring our skill sets to the game unapologetically, and we need to look for allies, not adversaries. I have gotten this far in the industry due to the support, collaboration, cooperation and trust of many intelligent, hardworking, conscientious men and women.”