Jennifer Washington earned her undergraduate degree in biology, her master’s degree in computer science and worked in related jobs for more than 15 years before uncovering her passion for construction.
The realisation happened by accident. After refinishing her own bathroom, friends started asking her to help them with similar tasks. She would happily take on additional projects in her off-time—transforming spaces from studs to magazine-quality.
“I would tear everything down and start from a clean slate,” said Washington, who is based in Washington, D.C. “I would do kitchens and bathrooms and decks and whatever my friends asked me to do, and then eventually I started doing full-house renovations, loving every minute of it.”
Washington is not the hammer-in-hand person; rather, she naturally took on the role of project manager, taking charge of all hiring, assigning, permit pulling and project tracking. She started attending construction conferences, networking like crazy (often four to five days per week) and getting as much formal training and certifications as possible.
In 2018, Washington switched from residential to commercial construction and launched BlueTee Construction Inc. Today, she said, “I’ve never been so busy in my life.”
Such busyness, however, comes with challenges—obstacles not uncommon for women who work in the construction trades.
“I was naïve, being a woman-owned minority construction company because I thought it was going to be easy,” she said. “I’m a goal-driven person and work very hard, so when I went into construction, I had no idea there would be so many barriers. Even while networking, I thought the biggest challenges would be winning projects, and now I realise that that is just one hurdle.”
WOMEN IN CONSTRUCTION WEEK 2021:
It took her about a year of networking to win her first contract and, once she secured that business, the real work began.
“I thought they were hiring me because I knew what I was doing but, in hindsight, I think many companies look at a woman and say, ‘OK, let’s bring this person in and take advantage of them,’” she said. “My general contractors were walking all over me. I wasn’t just the only woman on site, but also the only person of colour.”
Washington remembers leading many meetings where she said she would be required to defend herself to all-male groups, often on topics as fundamental as alterations to scopes of already-agreed-upon (in writing) work.
“They would say to me, ‘No, I don’t remember agreeing to that,’” she said. “Finally, I had to say, ‘You know what, gentlemen, I’m not going to argue with you. These are the facts, and we are sticking to them.’ I had to become a superwoman just to defend valid requests that I had the right to ask for.”
More than 2,700 miles west in Seattle, Boo Torres knows Washington’s pain. Torres is co-founder of Tribal Electric, Seattle’s only female- and queer-owned electrical contracting company. Torres runs field operations while her wife, Joanna Alcantara, manages the front office.
Torres has been working as an electrician for nearly 20 years and has a particular passion for modeling that women—and, in particular, queer women of colour—can thrive in the profession. This interest began when going to a trades fair in Seattle many years ago, walking up to the electrician table and seeing two women who looked like her.
“I saw two brown women and thought, ‘Whoa. You look like me. Maybe that means I can do this, too,’” Torres remembered. “I talked to them, and they really pumped me up about being an electrician and how great of a job it is. There’s the so-called ‘FBI’ joke that unless you have a father, a brother or an in-law in this line of work, you can’t get in. They showed me that I, too, could be a successful electrician. It was a huge turning point for me.”
Today, Torres focuses on hiring and mentoring women and non-binary people in her company but says that the construction industry has a long way to go when it comes to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“When you’re on big jobsites, racism is alive and well; so is homophobia, sexism and transphobia,” she said. “You think those things are gone, especially because they are talked about so much in office culture, but here in construction culture they are still very present.”
Two Ways to Make Change
Those in the construction industry who want to embrace more inclusive cultures are smart to institute the following in their companies:
Create a Zero-Tolerance Culture
This must start with those in leadership positions, Torres said, with those at the top modeling respect, acceptance and inclusive speech and action. Importantly, both Torres and Washington stress that men who speak negatively (this could include so-called “harmless” jokes) to women, people of colour and non-binary people need to be called out by their peers.
“Straight white men on these jobs need to call out their buddies when they do something wrong,” Torres said. “It should not be my job to tell men not to be sexist.”
Washington said peer pushback would be “extremely helpful because it would be like a big brother saying, ‘You know what? You can’t say that. It isn’t right.’ I think behaviour would have a better chance of stopping if that happened.”
A zero-tolerance culture also would include properly named trainings.
“We need to stop calling it ‘sensitivity training’ because no one in construction cares about being sensitive,” Torres said. “You use that word, and all of the men zone out. I often hear that companies have no tolerance for sexual harassment, but then the conversation ends. I want to hear examples of what not to do. Like, don’t flirt with this woman. Don’t make jokes about people because they aren’t funny. People need solid examples of what is appropriate and not appropriate.”
Men Must Be Open to Change
“Men are used to seeing construction done a certain way by a certain type of person,” Washington said. “There is a lot of sexism in construction, and I think to make real change, general contractors need to move past their current views of women in construction. They need to look at them on equal playing fields, respect them and their work, and allow them to have a voice and a seat at the table.”
“For those women who are working in the industry,” Washington concluded, “we are blazing the path, creating the blueprint for other women to follow.”