More women are considering a career in construction, here’s why
Sallie Bradshaw still recalls the time she walked into her local banker’s office. It was the late 80s and she was seeking a construction loan to build two houses on a lot she had recently purchased. Things were already tough at home, a business venture her then-husband had taken on had gone belly-up and they were in need of income. So Bradshaw decided to turn back to the family trade—building homes. That’s why she was shocked when a banker told her: “Well, we usually only give those [loans] to builders.”
What this banker didn’t realize is that she had helped her father build homes for as long as she could remember. Growing up in Texas, Bradshaw’s father was a schoolteacher who would build homes during his summer breaks as a way to make extra money for the family. “At the age of 10 I started mixing mortar and worked right alongside my father,” Bradshaw says.
A (once) uphill battle
She, eventually, would get the loan she needed, build those homes, later sell them, and continue on to build and develop whole subdivisions. She’s built up multiple construction companies, some of which she runs with her sons. Her career has mostly focused in Idaho, where she had even served as the vice president of Idaho’s state building association.
But she also lived and worked for several years in Utah, where she built eight custom homes. While in Utah she was a novelty, as she was one of the only women who owned her own contracting company back in 2014. Since leaving Utah in 2019 to focus on building back in Idaho, she’s heartened to hear of the other women gaining a foothold in Utah’s construction industry.
“It’s an uphill battle,” Bradshaw says.
And while it is an uphill battle, things are improving, according to US Census Data, for women in construction throughout the state.
In 2018 (the most-recently updated data) 10,408 women were in the construction industry. But that’s a big jump from five years earlier, in 2013, when only 6,202 women were in the field—a 68 percent increase. Yes, it’s still a male-dominated field with men outnumbering women in the field nearly ten to one, but the gains over the last few years are significant according to Jaren Davis, executive officer of the Salt Lake Home Builders Association.
Davis says that as a father of three daughters and the son of a mother who was once the vice president of Aetna International Companies, “I’ve always been pretty in tune with the female work force and have been quite energetic in making sure there is no glass ceiling.”
Davis says his association has been pushing to recruit more women into the construction workforce for the past five years, even establishing a special committee dedicated to that endeavor. Their current goal is to be the first association in the country to build a home completely constructed by female builders.
The association recognized that if they could push past the stereotype of male construction workers leaning on a shovel, telling dirty jokes that the industry would really benefit as a whole. He points out that following the 2008 economic recession, a lot of laborers who were Mexican and Asian migrants actually left the industry to work in other sectors and didn’t return when the economy rebounded. Now, he sees an opportunity for women to fill that gap.
He says women are now easing into the industry thanks, in part, to automation in technology that’s making construction work less physically demanding.
“That limitation is being removed,” Davis says. He mentions that one of the association’s members is AMSCO windows, a Utah manufacturing plant that provides windows for residential homes and employs approximately 300 employees―nearly 60 percent of them are women..
“Diversity in the industry is critical,” says Ashley Atkinson, vice president of the association. “You want to match the demographics of your customer base as much as possible.”
She says that there is a challenge in getting women into the industry because it can be hard to work up from an entry-level position. And those entry-level positions for builders are not yet as clearly defined for women.
“A lot of men start as framers while they’re in high school or college,” Atkinson says. “So if you know how to frame its so much easier to be a superintendent because you can foresee a lot of problems.”
However, she agrees that technology is making it easier for women to get into the industry, as is education, citing strong Construction Management degrees offered at schools like Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University.
Yet, Bradshaw understands the challenge of going from hammering nails to calling shots.
She struggled to navigate in a field dominated by men, when many felt it simply wasn’t her place and that she instead should have focused on family. But for her, family and business go together like precisely seamed sheets of drywall. She brought her children onto job sites and taught them the value of hard work by having them help clean up.
“Women have a lot of creativity and that’s a huge plus for the building industry,” she says.
Still, she knows how tricky it is proving herself to men in the field whole also navigating male egos by not forcefully challenging her peers when they’re wrong. Instead, she would demonstrate her acumen “show not tell” and quietly proved herself to her male comrades.
“I’m not as strong as a man,” Bradshaw says. “I never wanted to be and I never will be. I just have the know-how and I have done the handiwork on every aspect of the business more than once or twice or three times.”