Utopia recently conducted a Q&A with women in the construction industry. From product and safety managers, to engineering directors, these women climbed the ranks and made a name for themselves in their respective companies.
Here's her story on industry passion, pains, and shifting perspectives for women in construction.
Q&A WITH ROSE RODRIGUEZ
Could you tell me a bit about your market, company, and what you do?
BKV Group is a holistic, multidisciplinary design firm with practice offices in several U.S. markets and in Vietnam. From a structural perspective, the projects I work on involve wood, CFS and concrete design. Over the full course of my career, I have done everything from $500 million hospitals to salt barns, from elementary school additions to a minor league ice hockey arena—in Mississippi!
How many years you've been in your career? What are some of your day-to-day operations and activities?
I have been a structural engineer for 26 years. My daily activities involve all types of fun: pestering the architects and mechanical engineers for information we need; sketching up details; training EITs; messing around in Revit models; making sure our engineers don’t wander too far down any rabbit holes. (We all love ACI 318 Code discussions, but there’s only so much you should discuss non-contact lap splices!) And thanks to remote work, I’ve added “chatting” people during Teams meetings to make sure I heard that last item correctly; not everyone stays focused during all those web-based meetings.
What sparked your initial interest in the industry?
I was interested in math and Legos at a young age. The summer before my first year at Princeton, I switched my major from English to engineering, though I don’t remember why. Family history may have played a role, as my father was a mechanical engineer, and my grandfathers were an electrical engineer and a carpenter. I suppose as the youngest of three girls, I was my father’s last chance for an engineer!
Initially I went to graduate school to become a professor. But after finishing my master’s, I thought I should get a little on-the-job experience before I taught. After working for about three or four years in Nashville, I thought, “This is too much fun!” So, I decided not to go back to the University of Texas.
My first job gave me some great opportunities, allowing me to design hospitals all over the country. I visited job sites from Miami to eastern Washington state, from Lake Havasu, Ariz., to Carlisle, Penn. The one advantage of being a woman was that I could rent a car earlier than my male counterparts due to the car rental company restrictions on young males.
What do you love most about your job/career?
I love that when you finish a building, there it is—standing there, resisting gravity. You can say "I helped make this structure come to life."
What we do is so—concrete. Also, I enjoy visiting job sites and seeing our designs come out of the ground. Finally, I enjoy that I can send photos to my mother and sisters and show them what I do with my days. (Not something my sisters—the prosecutor and the actuary—can do.)
What has been the biggest barrier you've faced in your field?
Probably the biggest barrier I have encountered in this male-dominated field is getting my voice heard when early decisions are being made in a project. I had to learn to speak up and say things like, “That transfer girder you are suggesting is so deep there will be no headroom clearance below.”
Getting involved early in a project is very important for the structural team; that’s one reason I enjoy working for a multidisciplinary firm. In a full-service firm, structural is there from the beginning, helping to set up the project early to avoid problems down the road.
What are some common challenges that women in this industry (and perhaps the workforce as a whole) face?
I felt it challenging, specifically when I was younger, to be heard. I felt that as a young woman, I was expected to listen; and when I spoke at meetings I was often talked over. This is less common now. I suppose I also have more experience to lend to discussions, but I think it’s fair to say that the industry has become more accepting of women over time.
(And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention not particularly enjoying always being asked to just play on sports teams. Yes, I understand that the women’s tees have a straight shot over the water hazard, but I still don’t like golf. And while I appreciate that the softball team needs a minimum of three women, I really don’t like to play 2nd base, though I played it for many seasons.)
What are your opinions and thoughts on women in the construction industry?
I feel women should do the work that suits them, and construction suits many women. Some women are designers because they like to analyze and solve problems. Some women work out in the field because they like to collaborate in real time and provide timely solutions. I also feel to a certain extent women aren’t afraid to ask the questions that everyone wants to ask but are not comfortable doing so. Finally, I have been in many heated meetings (involving some rather unsavory language), and I consistently feel that the inclusion of women often calms the waters. Through these little things, as well as their technical talents and expertise, women bring value to the construction industry.
What do you think are the reasons women either don't want to work in the industry, won't get hired, or don't retain positions?
Most women I know who have left the industry have done so due to lack of flexibility in work hours leading to unacceptable work-life balance. I am hoping that as remote work becomes more accepted, many of these women will elect to re-enter the workforce. Without the long commute and with more flexible work hours, many women could opt to work again, full-time or part-time.
The construction industry requires a lot of commitment, and some of what it asks of us may not seem reasonable to everyone. Two weeks after my son was born, I got a call from my office that they needed me to revise a large set of drawings for a new hospital. I worked for several days marking up drawings on the floor, then when they were ready and printed, I drove to the office to sign and emboss (Florida) several sets. It was not how I expected to spend my maternity leave, but I guess I did not think it unreasonable; some people may feel differently.
Have you noticed a specific public perception of women working in your field? Has it changed over the years?
I once called an architect in Florida, and the receptionist assumed I must be his wife because why else would a woman be calling him? Yes, public perception of women in engineering has changed during my career. But in general, people come to a structural engineer when they have a structural problem, so they are usually open to what we have to say.
What solutions do we have to solve these problems? Do you know of any good resources for women and businesses to go to in order to circumnavigate these challenges?
We need to improve the experience of young engineers to keep them from leaving the profession. This is the goal of a rather new NCSEA committee called the Structural Engineering Engagement and Equity (SE3) Project (NCSEA meaning: National Council of Structural Engineers Associations).
Local SEAs around the country are starting chapters in their own communities to study the issue of engaging engineers, and they are offering “best practice” guidelines. The national organization provides data through a nation-wide survey every two years or so.
Anything else you'd like to add?
When I started working at my first firm in Tennessee, the office manager was so happy that a woman engineer had been hired. She said that the week before I came, the firm’s leaders made all the guys remove their girlie screen savers and pin-up posters. Believe me, the posters were not all gone by the time I got there, but I was told that it started a new era in that office. I was happy to be part of the change for the better.