When you picture a stereotypical worker in the construction industry, for most individuals, the first image that probably comes to mind is likely a male. But the number of women working in construction is increasingly growing. Female-based apprenticeship programs such as the ANEW in Seattle, Building Pathways in Boston, and Tradeswomen Inc. are facilitating this, according to EHS Today.
Why is this growth occurring and what are organizations and businesses doing to catalyze this growth?
On today’s episode of Extending the Ladder by Compass Datacenters, podcast Host and Chief Innovation Officer of Compass Datacenters, Nancy Novak, speaks with Jennifer Sproul, President of Maryland Center for Construction Education and Innovation, Inc. (MCCEI), about what MCCEI and other companies are doing to boost the number of females in construction-based roles.
Novak and Sproul also discussed…
- How Sproul entered the construction industry and the challenges she faced as a female in the field
- Recent growth of female involvement in the construction industry and why this is occurring
- What Compass Datacenters is doing to promote female engagement in construction
Despite the small proportion of females in the construction industry, Sproul said there has been an upswing in numbers since 2018. “I’d say probably the first few years or so we were in the industry and out in the workforce we were stuck at about 9 percent, a little under 10 percent of the industry. And now, nationally, we’re at 14 percent. In fact, in Washington, D.C., women make up 17.6 percent.” She believes part of the reason for this upswing is education of women realizing construction opportunities.
Jennifer Sproul is President of Maryland Center for Construction Education and Innovation, Inc. Prior to her work at MCCEI, she held various marketing roles in a variety of companies and organizations. Sproul has also served as the National Professional Development & Education Committee Chair and the Northeast Region Director of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC). She holds an AAS in Construction Management from Catonsville Community College and a BA in Communications from Loyola University Maryland.
Read the full transcript below:
Nancy Novak: Compass Data Centres is proud to present our next guest, Jennifer Sproul. Jennifer is the president of the Maryland Centre for Construction Education and Innovation with 22 years of experience in the construction industry. She recently served on the National Board of National Association of Women in Construction, NAWIC, as a Northeastern regional director. She is passionate and advocates for women in the a AUC industry. And I know a little bit about Jennifer, Jennifer and I are friends, and she has a very interesting career path in this industry. So I’m not going to read her entire bio because I would like for her to share how she got into the industry, and then we can then dive into some more of these wonderful topics that we’re going to talk about.
Jennifer Sproul: Hi. Good seeing you, Nancy. So like, I think, a lot of women in the construction industry, at least that I’ve spoken to, I accidentally joined the construction industry. I was a communications major in college. And when I graduated I got a job working for Whiting-Turner in their marketing department. And I remember sitting in my interview asking, “Oh, what do you think about working in construction?” Well, honestly, before I answered the ad, I hadn’t even thought about it. That wasn’t my answer, but that was the truth. And here I am 22 years later, I’ve gotten some really amazing opportunities in this industry and it’s been… I can’t imagine meeting anywhere else.
Nancy Novak: That’s so great to hear. And honestly, at Compass, we love hearing that, Jennifer, because we do love promoting to bring women into the industry, and also promoting those who don’t have any background so that it can be trained on site. And I have to tell you, the ones that we have here in the US… Right now, we’ve got 100% of our CMS in the US are women, and the ones we have here in the US are just crushing it. They love it. They’re like a part of the family, they’re a part of the teams, it’s exciting. So I can’t wait to talk more about the construction industry so that we can [inaudible 00:02:00] some excitement with our audience, and then maybe they’ll have some questions on how they can get into the industry. I do have to say though, starting out, just all women who are in a male dominated field, but in particular construction being very male dominated, I’m sure you face some challenges along the way.
Nancy Novak: So we would love to hear a little bit about some of those challenges so that we can relate to that, and then kind of talk about some of the ways you worked through them.
Jennifer Sproul: So I would say when I was… I would say one of the biggest challenges I faced was when I was starting a family. I was working for a small general contractor who had never had someone take or need maternity leave before. So they were great in that they worked with me and asked me what I wanted, but also as a young person, I was in my late twenties, early thirties, it was also kind of scary having to decide what I wanted. So I would say that was a challenge, a hurdle. Being on a job site while I was trying to breastfeed my first child, and not having a place to do that was really hard. Actually after my pregnancy, they gave me a conference room to pump in, and somebody actually walked in on me because it didn’t lock. I have horror stories without trying to breastfeed. I’m sure any new mom can relate to those things, but working for some place where you are the first to do something is kind of hard.
Nancy Novak: Oh, I totally agree. And honestly, I want you to know I relate. My youngest is only 23 years old, and I also was with a company where I was the first ever person running work that was going to have to go and have a baby physically, and then return to work. And I also hear a lot of stories about women who had to make those difficult decisions. Like you said, your company was kind enough to say, “What is it you want to do?” And some of the decisions around that end up being, well, let’s work for a while till I normalise my life. And then what you find, and I found this pretty much across the board, is this part-time work effort ends up being a full-time with part-time pay.
Jennifer Sproul: I do remember everyone kept asking me if I was going to go. And honestly, part-time is hard to do if you need daycare, especially if you want to use a centre and not a person’s home. It’s almost more expensive. I actually found that it was more expensive to pay for part-time care than a full-time salary, a full-time weekly care because you’re taking up the spot. And it just didn’t make sense. There was no way I could survive, we could survive paying daycare on a one salary, or one and a half salary. So it was never something… Plus, I love working, and just because I was a mother didn’t mean that I was going to stop. I guarantee nobody asked my husband if he was going to go part-time when we had our child.
Nancy Novak: That’s a good point. I like to encourage doing the role reversal when we’re talking about these kinds of choices. And it’s also a very good point on just the affordability of daycare or nannies and what the expectation is there. But I also think, and you and I talked about this earlier, it’s really not a right or wrong thing. It’s about having the decision and feeling good about whatever that decision is and feeling strong in that decision. And men and women should both, in my opinion, be able to make those kinds of decisions about how they want to split that caregiving time and still maintain their financial viability as a family, as a unit, right?
Jennifer Sproul: Absolutely.
Nancy Novak: So that’s great. Well, so let’s pivot over here to what we see coming up and what’s current, what’s future, what changes you’ve seen related to welcoming more women into the industry. And then really, I’d like to dive into a little bit of how the Maryland Centre for Construction and Education can enhance that and help us with this diversity conundrum that we face.
Jennifer Sproul: Absolutely. I’m sure we’ve seen this and your viewers have seen the stats on the increase of women in the last couple years. I would say probably the first 40 years or so that we were in the industry and actually out in the workforce, we were talking about 9%, little under 10% of the industry. And now nationally, we’re at 14%. And in fact, in Washington DC, women make up 17.6%.
Nancy Novak: Wow. That’s outstanding.
Jennifer Sproul: Really amazing.
Nancy Novak: That’s huge. That’s huge.
Jennifer Sproul: And it’s been quite… Since about 2018 is when the numbers started to decline. But within the last, I would say 24 months is when we’ve seen the major jump.
Nancy Novak: Is there why behind that?
Jennifer Sproul: I think a lot of it is just education of women realising the opportunities. It’s like the message is finally getting out there. It’s probably the biggest [inaudible 00:07:18].
Nancy Novak: I was wondering if… One of the popular topics nowadays in social media and on the news is a whole student loan, student debt, and then the promotion of the vocational trades and how you can make a really good livelihood doing that. And that’s from the tool carrying aspect, not necessarily the management part of things, because we’ve struggled in the industry, both in the trades, and then also in the management ranks and or supervision ranks. So I am curious about whether the trades have gone… They used to be at about 3%, I think women, and you’re right, the management was always nine or 10%. And now we’ve seen increases, I think in both areas, if I’m not mistaken.
Jennifer Sproul: Yeah, we’re still under 5% in the trades, but it has gone up. And I hear anecdotally from all the apprenticeships here in the state of Maryland that there are numbers of women are increasing. For example, I was talking to IBW and they were saying I think they were at 15% of their current apprentices were women. And I personally have just seen more women. And I think honestly, social media is really helping.
Nancy Novak: That’s helping. Yeah.
Jennifer Sproul: Yeah, there’s some trades women that are really out there and are influencers, and I think… And they’re not some stereotypical gruff person. They’re young and fun, and they’re advancing steadily in a male populated career. So it’s pretty cool to see, and I think encouraging for young people.
Nancy Novak: That’s also a good point. Social media does help. And I would like to encourage our audience to spread the word and share the podcast because we… I was just on a call this morning with a group called WiMCO, Women in Mission Critical, right? And they were looking at one of the struggles we have, which is advancing women. And I think you and I, Jennifer, talked last time that we were together about the fact that the industry is really good in the fact that there’s not a huge pay gap based on classification of labour or certain levels. But when it comes to the advancement part, being able to push women up into those leadership pro rules, we still see a huge challenge there.
Jennifer Sproul: Absolutely. And I often think it’s just unconscious biases of hiring practises, of promotion practises, of not recognising the leadership qualities that women have versus men. Transformational leadership versus transactional leadership and those types of things, I think are what are holding women back when we’re being held to the double bind of being too aggressive but not forceful and just-
Nancy Novak: All those double language standards, right?
Jennifer Sproul: Exactly. Yeah. So I think that’s a lot of it. And honestly, I know that if any man in leadership, or even a woman, because we often are our own worst enemies and we hold women to different standards than we do men as women, but I would say you recognise that, just learn, realise it, and then maybe you’ll think about it when you’re reviewing a mid-management level woman. And if you think twice, am I being blind to my own biases, then that might help a little bit. It’s just that education. No, but I don’t think people are maliciously holding women back. I think is just-
Nancy Novak: That’s out outstanding advice. It really is, Jennifer. You and I, again, we’ve talked about the fact that there’s implicit bias in everybody, right? We all have it because we’re human. And I do believe that most of the time I see it occurring, it’s typically done, believe it or not, with good intentions because someone’s kind of making a decision on your behalf for what they think is best for you. And it’s changing that stereotypical kind of systemic way that we’re brought up that says we need to make those choices on our own and feel good about those choices like we stated earlier. But yeah, I love that comment you made about really conditioning yourself before you get ready to look at promotions or opportunities or hiring practises and asking yourself, put that yourself in that right mindset of, do I have biases? Of course I do.
Nancy Novak: Okay, what are those, and how can I make sure those don’t interfere with the decision I’m making? Because I tell you, I’ve interviewed folks where I do question myself. I really fall in love with one of the candidates and I have to ask myself, is it because there’s so much like me, or is there a reason I was struggling because this person is not so much like me? And what other attributes am I looking for that will actually balance my team a little better and bring some more diverse talent in which we desperately need?
Jennifer Sproul: Absolutely. And I think it’s really important. I hear all the time, “I’m hiring the best person for the job. I don’t care their gender, their race, their sexual orientation.” But honestly, a lot of times the best person for the job is someone that looks like the person that had it before or has the same attributes, and so I think we need to try and get rid of that language. I know it’s good intentioned language, but get rid of that and actually implement some hiring practises that try and take away any biases that you would have.
Nancy Novak: I think you’re right, because I was also… I was kind of laughing it to myself when you said best person for the job because so many times, there’s this idea that we’re going to put women on boards or we’re going to put women in leadership as tokens, and then everyone always warns you, “Don’t forget, we need the most qualified person.” And I always kind of look back and think, yeah, because every single man who’s on a border in a leadership position is clearly the most qualified, and if you’re a woman, there’s a chance that you might not be or something. It’s funny when you actually put it in that perspective, but that is another systemic belief that people have, right?
Jennifer Sproul: Absolutely. Yeah. It’s been a problem ever since we had any idea of quotas whatsoever. Somebody thinks, especially a lot of women say, “Oh, well, I don’t want to be a quota. I don’t want to be hired because I was a woman.” You were never hired because you were a woman, never. You were hired because you were the right person for the job, but maybe somebody said, I’m going to give this person extra look because they’re a woman.
Nancy Novak: Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s true. It’s a hard nut to crack honestly, because we also want to make sure that we’re bringing our full selves and our talent, and we kind of respected and recognised for what we know. And I do think that to your… I love the fact that things are improving because we want to be on that trajectory. I also believe firmly, and I think you agree with me, that we can’t rely on our laurels to just continue along this trajectory. As we’ve seen in past statistics where there was about a 10 year period of time where women were being added to boards at a very steady pace, and then there was a backslide, right? Because it’s hard to keep that pipeline full, especially when you’re looking at the advancing roles of women. I do want to really dig in a little bit to what your centre does and how it helps us become more diverse as an industry.
Jennifer Sproul: So we are a nonprofit workforce intermediary. We were founded in 2009 after the last recession, once the biggest names here in construction in Maryland realised our impending doom when it came to workforce and the pipeline. And you know the stats. Every four people that are retired, only one person’s coming in. So yeah, we were founded then. We are kind of a connector between the education industry, industry and government, making sure that our pipeline starts when they’re [inaudible 00:15:27] K to 12 on a school programme. There’s a lot of people, I think, focus on the person with three to five years experience and trying to get them in, but we really need to focus on as young as elementary school and getting kids interested in careers and making them realise that working with their hands isn’t something that you not shouldn’t be looked down upon, that you have amazing career opportunities.
Jennifer Sproul: And then it’s working with them as they progress, giving them internship and pre-apprenticeship opportunities when they’re in high school, and it’s just the career exploration. And then working with adult learners too, and making sure that somebody in a workforce development programme from Baltimore City not only realises what they’re being trained in those 12 weeks, but knows all of the available opportunities to them. That’s a little bit of what we’re doing here at MCCEI.
Nancy Novak: That’s great. And I wanted to focus a little bit on the I part, innovation. Since I’m chief of innovation, I thought we should focus on this. So in the industry, since the beginning of time when you and I first entered, innovation and technology has made some good inroads into the construction world. Do you think that has not just opportunity, but also made a difference in who it’s attracting to our industry?
Jennifer Sproul: Absolutely. And honestly, I think as an industry, we probably aren’t capitalising enough on the I. And we have made some significant advances in the last even five years on the technology and innovation, but I don’t know that we’re really doing a great job of selling that. And we are still trying to recruit the same people that we were recruiting 20 years ago. So I do think that that is an opportunity, a pipeline that we aren’t really tapping into right now, our kids that are interested in tech. I’ve worked for construction managers that have software divisions. I know now they probably are hiring people to fill those positions with those roles, but so many times I’ve worked somewhere when they’ve got drones or laser scans or anything and they just give it to the young project engineer to be in charge of. And you can be… Why not hire somebody that actually has robotics experience or something like that? So there is no learning curve. And then you can teach them the construction part, because IT is the number one career and technical education pathway in the state of Maryland, I’m assuming all schools.
Jennifer Sproul: So that’s the most number of kids. You got to be able to pull some of them. Some of them there would be interested in construction if we just exposed them to that.
Nancy Novak: Well, this is how I look at it, and this is why I love the technology part of it. We are in the middle of the, well, beginning of rather, the fourth industrial revolution, right? We’re digitising everything. So even when you look at the humanities and the sciences, they’ve blended, because now there’s digital literature, and there’s digital art and digital photography and digital music. And it’s really just amazing when you look at this fourth industrial revolution, which is digitising the world. And construction is no different. We build off digital documentation, we collect digital information to understand performance and operations. And now, we’re got these new technologies that can help us neutralise things like the brute strength that it takes and that causes injury and kind of eliminate some of the possibilities of some of the trades by using exoskeletons and robotics and offsite manufacturing in all the innovative ways that we want to normalise our business to make it more productive, more attractive and more diverse.
Nancy Novak: So I am a hundred percent agreeing with that. Innovation is so important to our industry, and I would love to continue along that road of disruption. And I think that what you’re doing is part of that. It’s a huge part of that, especially when you have to educate people about it and how vast it really is.
Jennifer Sproul: Yeah, we had a symposium at the end of October, I think. I don’t know, my days are running together. But one of our topics was on innovation and how to harness it when you’re recruiting and retaining your employees, but also just like what’s the industry going to look like? Who should you be recruiting? And you think you talk about prefab and manufacture, the industrialization basically of the construction industry… And think about no one in construction really has logistics experience, but there are people that are majoring in logistics. There are career changers that we could be pulling from manufacturing and companies and whatnot. So there is, I think, a lot of opportunity for the construction industry to really learn from other industries like tech, like manufacturing. And I think I saw a stat that said if you look at productivity of all these other industries they just have steadily gone up in constructions actually, just going down that we need a major overhaul on that. And who we’re-
Nancy Novak: We do. I spend a lot of my time talking about that very thing because it makes me sad that we have such a great industry, such a large ecosystem, and we have a lot of new in innovative ways of doing stuff, but we really haven’t improved that tool time. The tool time right now, on average, is only about 40% per body, meaning 60% of someone’s time, it’s carrying a tool is waiting on information, looking for data, getting design materials, equipment, you name it, just logistics, like you said. And so it is a really kind of focusing on the person with a tool in their hand. Regardless of what your role is, it’s kind of the beginning part of disrupting the business to make it better, some of these other industries that we could absolutely learn from. And I wanted to branch out just a little bit because I love the statistics, and I love teaching our audience about some of the stats around how big the business is, right?
Nancy Novak: So when you really look at the built environment, I’ve been very much in tune with our obligation related to sustainability. So again, there’s other roles, right? You’ve got cybersecurity, you have sustainability, like you said, logistics. There’s all these different type of accounting, estimating, all of these different types of roles that we need in this massive ecosystem to build for anybody and everybody. And on the front of sustainability, the way the stats show right now, the way they stack up is somewhere between 45 and 50% of the built environment, including maintaining, operating and upgrading buildings is responsible for global greenhouse gases. So the opportunity to be able to really pivot there and have a meaningful career that can really solve some global problems is huge. It’s just huge.
Jennifer Sproul: Absolutely. And I just had a conversation this morning with one of my board members about the messaging that the industry is lacking. It’s in lacking in… We are affecting the world more than any other industry out there, and we have the opportunity to change the world the more than any other industry out there. And I don’t think we do a really great job of selling that to young people, to their parents, anything… Gen Z really cares about the impact they’re having-
Nancy Novak: They do.
Jennifer Sproul: … in their careers.
Nancy Novak: They do.
Jennifer Sproul: Women and minorities do too.
Nancy Novak: Yeah.
Jennifer Sproul: And if we’re trying to diversify, we’re trying to attract more people. That’s the message we need to be selling, is you’re literally building the world, you’re building places families are made, hospitals and churches and schools and-
Nancy Novak: Roadways, everything.
Jennifer Sproul: Everything. Like you said, when it comes to global warming, we have the responsibility as an industry, but also the tools as an industry to make a difference.
Nancy Novak: What you said there earlier about people not being exposed to that is fascinating to me because I travel quite a bit, I go to many different conferences and areas, and I do speak about my passions, and one of those is sustainability. And when I talk to other experts who are experts in global warming, climate change, sustainability, greenhouse gases, all of those things, they’re always a setback and a bit surprised at what they hear about the built environment. And that is a challenge that I think is going to become more in the front and centre it. I love the doubt that I heard it during one of the sessions I was in. And it was, if concrete was a country, it would be third in line to China and the US for global greenhouse gas emissions, for contributor. And it just put that…
Nancy Novak: It’s the most abundant material on the planet. And it’s one of those things where we know we have technology that can help us improve and reduce the amount of cement we use in concrete, which is the major contributor to the greenhouse gases, right? So those types of technologies are exciting and very viable. And so again, I wanted to bring up that one other aspect, not to discount the cybersecurity part and being able to build secure facilities all over the globe and protect privacy and intellectual property and things like that that are so critical to us.
Jennifer Sproul: Absolutely. And on that same call that I had earlier today, we talked about the growth of mass timber buildings, and they were telling me that they had a six story building going up that was all wood and no concrete at all, which I thought was amazing. Even the floors are wood. And they were able to get over the ratings and whatnot and make sure that it was passcode. And I think that kind of innovation’s really exciting and interesting to see where are the industry’s going to go when the next 10 years or so?
Nancy Novak: Well, and there’s no one solution, but there’s many, many solutions. And what excites me and gives me a positive outlook is that I know that we have the ability and technology used to do a lot of what we need to do already. It’s just a matter of normalising it, making the business case for it, getting the word out there. So part of me is feels comfort in the fact that we know how to do stuff and we’re continuing to develop things. It’s just literally trying to make it something that the built environment can do and still have their livelihoods in check. And the other thing that’s a struggle… And then I’m going to get down to just what your wish is for the industry, Jennifer, but the other thing I want to point out is we talk about all these opportunities within the built environment, and I just want to make sure people understand that this is a train you just can’t jump in front of, right?
Nancy Novak: This is something that is perpetual, and it’s exciting to be a part of. So when it comes to just impacting everybody on the planet, the built environment is a way in which we do that. It does with infrastructure, with digital transformation, with water, with power, with like you said, hospitals, airports, transportation, all of that. And I would love to repeat the fact that we need to learn from the manufacturing industry and get better at being able to do those types of things. So we’re in it to win it, and I think that your organisation understands that, and that innovative part’s going to help us a lot. So I would like to know now, if it was blue sky for Jennifer, what would your wish be for our industry?
Jennifer Sproul: I wish that the industry was a place that everyone felt safe, welcome, and secure, and that they would see that the amazing success they could have in this industry. And right now, I don’t think we’re quite there yet.
Nancy Novak: That is a very, very wonderful wish to have it. It is. It really is. Having a welcoming environment is so important when you come to work every day, not just knowing that you’re in a noble profession, but you’re contributing, you’re making a difference, but also feeling like you belong there, right?
Jennifer Sproul: Exactly. Belonging, I think, is the part that I’ve recently realised through conversations with DEI experts that we often forget about. And when we talked about DEI… In fact, it was our moderator from our DEI session at our symposium, Dr. Estelle Marie Montgomery, she talked very much about the sense of belonging. It is, I think what keeps the industry 80% white and 90% male, is that [inaudible 00:28:56]. And I know we’re working our way away… And I guess now, we’re not quite 90% anymore. We’re a little bit better, 86%, but we still have a long ways to go. When the population itself is about 50-50, we still have quite a bit to go to make it a place that women feel a hundred percent like they belong.
Nancy Novak: I absolutely agree, and that is the best note ever to conclude on. I love the message of belonging. And I would like for our audience to not just think about that and reflect on it, but also share that message, because belonging makes all the difference in whether you want to come to work every day and bring your full self and belong to this wonderful industry that is changing the way we live. So thank you so much, Jennifer. I would like one more tag here at the end, and I would like for our audience to know how to reach you and how to get involved with what you’re doing.
Jennifer Sproul: So I’m very active on LinkedIn. You can search me out there or go to our website, mccei.org. There’s a million ways. We have sponsorship opportunities, guest speaking opportunities, and would love to connect with anybody, even if you’re not in Maryland. I have cohorts and colleagues all over the country, actually, even internationally as well.
Nancy Novak: Oh, that’s fantastic. That’s very good to know. Well, thank you again. I’m so happy to have you as a guest on Breaking Glass, and I look forward to us publishing this, and then getting the wonderful feedback so that we can continue to grow and improve.
Jennifer Sproul: Thanks, Nancy.