Women in Construction Week celebrates the growing role of women in the construction industry and raises awareness of the opportunities available for women in construction. Four women construction leaders in the Chicago area recently weighed in on their experience in the industry.
Monica Barsoum is a senior project manager with Lendlease, a leading international property and infrastructure group.
Tara Fox is a senior project manager with Lemont, Illinois-based Englewood Construction, a national commercial construction firm specializing in retail, restaurant, hospitality/entertainment, industrial, office and senior living construction as well as facilities management.
Jennifer Gee is a project manager with Chicago-based James McHugh Construction Co., one of the largest full-service construction firms in the U.S. The firm’s experience ranges from national landmark renovations to projects in the hospitality, office, retail, multifamily and education sectors.
Amy Mayer is vice president of construction for Related Midwest, the preeminent developer of mixed-use properties, affordable housing communities and luxury condominium and rental homes across Chicago.
How did you get into the construction industry?
Barsoum: My lineage would not have predicted a career in construction. Most of my immediate family is in the medical field, but I knew that was not the right path for me. I am the outlier—I hate blood! I’ve always liked math and gravitated toward engineering at a young age. My career began with internships in engineering and design where I was stuck behind a desk, and I didn’t love what I was doing. I started to explore opportunities in construction where I was in the field, and that really excited me. To be in on the earlier stages of a project and to see the magnitude of what we were creating was really exciting. When you take a step back and think of your career as part of your legacy and to know that includes shaping the skyline is thrilling.
Fox: In the past I worked with the wife of the owner of Englewood Construction, and she urged me on several occasions to submit a resume to her husband’s company. I was always hesitant because, at that time, I knew nothing about construction, but I finally followed her advice and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. My first position with Englewood was at the administrative level, and 18 years later I’ve worked my way up to senior project manager. I have been very fortunate in the mentors, experiences and opportunities presented to me that have allowed me to grow in this industry.
Gee: I started out interning in the engineering department of the Chicago Transit Authority. My sister’s godmother was an architect for the Army Corps of Engineers, so I was always around some aspects of the industry. I started off wanting to be a civil engineer designing bridges. While working with CTA, I really become interested in construction mostly because I could not see myself sitting behind a desk making CAD files for most of my career. The construction side of things seemed more challenging as well, as I felt like I could get more of a hands-on experience working in the field with all the different trades.
Mayer: I am an architect by education and during the interview process for my first job after college I encountered a company that was doing a renovation/adaptive reuse of an old hotel on Lakeshore Drive (The Mayfair). This was a young company doing really great custom units for sale. The work was all from a field office and exactly opposite of many of the corporate architecture positions I’d interviewed for. I always have found technical information regarding buildings more my strong suit than designing. When I accepted the job and started working, I found myself very inclined to spend time engaging with the trades to work through the details of the project rather than doing the drawings. I enjoyed learning about how things are built, which is something that had been missing in most of my education. Gradually I found that I had no interest in drawing, but enjoyed pricing, working with subcontractors and supervising work in the field. Luckily, I was in a place and starting at a time when everyone was very busy, and I could choose my own path.
Describe a typical day on the job.
Barsoum: Each day I come in with a plan and each day I allow myself to not follow it. My daily routine is influenced by so many stakeholders—each with their own vision and intent—and my job is to ensure that those visions and intents are realized through what we are building. The majority of my day is spent problem solving—and not just solving the immediate problem, but also forecasting what might arise and how we will respond to that. I spend a lot of time thinking ahead and considering what we should be planning for now to prepare for what lies ahead. As the leader of my team, part of my job is to ensure that everyone is thinking that way. And meetings. Lots of meetings. Even on the job site.
Fox: One of the things I love most about this job and working in construction is that every day is different. There truly is not a “typical” day. Each day, and each project, provides an opportunity to learn something new, solve different challenges and develop new relationships and partnerships.
Gee: Typically, by the time I arrive on site, some tradespeople have questions on project conditions. Most of my projects are renovations, so this is typical since things are never as shown on the drawings. After reviewing the issues with the subcontractor and superintendent, I send RFIs (requests for information), make calls and follow up on RFIs, submittals and material delivery ETAs. By lunch, I try to sit down with the superintendent to coordinate work sequences for the upcoming days and follow up on emails. My afternoons are usually spent walking the jobs and checking in with all the subcontractors’ progress as it relates to where we should be according to the schedule. At that point, the subs are getting ready to leave for the day so that gives me time walk the job again to take photos and do paperwork, which is usually hard to complete due to the constant interruptions from issues and questions that always arise on a renovation project with an accelerated schedule.
Mayer: Back when I was more field-based a typical day on the job would start with walking the site to see if everyone was present and working, checking in to make sure there weren’t any issues (there are always issues) and then calling out trades that were needed, meeting with the subcontractors and then by the end of the day, processing paperwork. Now my days are mostly filled with meetings on various projects and discussions of technical issues, planning of work, bid reviews, cost analysis and reviewing projects in process.
What have been some of the biggest obstacles (if any)?
Barsoum: Of course, being in the construction industry we always face design constraints, but that is not the greatest obstacle—that is just a part of the job. Our industry is so collaborative, and the greatest obstacles arise from aligning and satisfying the different expectations and visions of all the stakeholders on a project, while still producing the best product. Each player has a different priority, whether it’s safety, schedule or budget. My job is to ensure that everyone’s priority is met, and their vision fulfilled. This is as much about building and maintaining relationships as it is building the structure.
Fox: One of the biggest challenges for anyone in this industry is maintaining work-life balance. Construction is simply not a five-days-a-week, nine-to-five type of job. It requires a lot of early mornings, late nights, weekends and travel. Balancing work and family is an ever-evolving process and something everyone in this field has to work at every day.
Gee: I’m usually the only woman and the youngest person on the jobsite, which can sometimes cause an issue with the subcontractors. However, after the guys see that we are on the same team, I’m going to push the job and get answers to help keep the project moving and that potential issue goes away. As my boss (Kate Ivanova) would say, “I’m not just there to be a pretty face.” I can actually bring something to the table and add value to the project. Most of the trades have worked with me before or know of me, so for the most part I don’t have many issues with that.
Mayer: I am fortunate to work within a company that is very progressive, backing me without reservation in all that I’ve done. I have encountered very few examples of inappropriate behavior on job sites, but when I have, it has been very quickly and effectively addressed. When I’ve encountered the rare foreman or superintendent who has challenged my credibility or authority, I’ve always tackled it head on and those people end up respecting me for it.
What was your favorite construction project and why?
Barsoum: Every Lendlease project I work on becomes my favorite! Each brings its own unique qualities and learning opportunities. They not only shape the skyline, but also me and my career. I am truly thankful for all of them. Right now, my favorite project is Lakeshore East for many reasons. I am loving the process of creating this development because Lendlease is both the owner and the contractor, so we are able to use a truly integrated approach to our benefit. Plus, the development is located at the intersection of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, which is such an iconic setting—it feels like a once-in-a-lifetime project.
Fox: It’s difficult to choose just one, because there’s always something unique and interesting about every project. One that stands out from several years ago is the 23rd Street Café at McCormick Place in Chicago. We combined part of the floor that was used for shows with two other concepts that we demoed to build out the café and created a new pedestrian walkway bridge for access. Not only were there interesting design elements involved and the challenge of coordinating around shows and events that were taking place during construction, but there were also great people involved on all aspects of the project. Englewood’s ongoing work with American Girl to build and renovate American Girl Place stores across the country would also make my list of favorites, especially the locations we built in Orlando and Nashville. Everyone involved on these projects were truly partners throughout the duration of construction and even after completion—it’s very rewarding to establish that level of relationship with our clients and trade partners.
Gee: The Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile lobby renovation was special because we had been renovating the hotel for five years, and the lobby was our grand finale so to speak. I had been a part of the last renovation the hotel underwent in 2008 while I was working for a different general contractor, and then I was back to do it all over again with McHugh.
Mayer: I really enjoyed working on the Taylor Street Library and Apartments, a mixed-use development which includes mixed-income residential apartments and a public library branch. I felt that the entire team from the architects and contractors to the reviewing agents that had day-to-day contact with the project really worked in unison to produce an incredible project. The comradery between all team members couldn’t have been better.
What do you like most about your job?
Barsoum: The best part of my job is being able to see my contributions alter the skyline and impact the city as a whole. It’s so rewarding to take my family to see these buildings knowing they’ve made an indelible mark on the city’s landscape and will be part of it for years to come. I also love the opportunity for collaboration in my job. Every stakeholder comes in with a different and valuable perspective—it’s never about one way of doing things, but about blending everyone’s knowledge, experiences and strengths to solve problems.
Fox: The construction business is truly built on relationships, and I really enjoy the opportunity to interact with so many different people in my work. Establishing strong connections and loyalties with clients, trades and vendors across the country is invaluable in being successful in this industry.
Gee: I like that my job is ever changing. Each project has its different challenges, but it’s easy to take your past lessons learned and apply them to a new situation on new projects. By utilizing knowledge from past projects, you will continue to improve on your craft. I also like the fact that I learn so much from the people in the field; they truly are experts at their jobs, and you learn the most from being out on site working alongside the trades.
Mayer: I like the people in the construction industry, even when dealing with challenging situations. I was a shy teenager, so it is always surprising to me that I really enjoy meeting people and learning about their stories. People in the construction industry have the best and most entertaining stories of anyone. And the experiences in the construction industry are so real that sometimes it can also break your heart. Working to make sure that everyone is safe and can go home to their families is critical.
How has the participation of women in construction changed over the years and where do you see it heading?
Barsoum: I’ve certainly seen an increase of women in leadership roles at Lendlease over my 11 years, but the industry as a whole has a long way to go. It’s not happening as quickly as we hoped it would, but there is definitely a shift and I am proud that Lendlease is part of that change. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in mentoring programs, and I believe programs like that are critical in recruiting future female leaders. We need to tap young minds, show them what the day-to-day is like and let them get their hands dirty.
Fox: Being a woman in this field was definitely unusual when I got into the industry, but that has changed exponentially over the years. Now, women are commonplace in pretty much all disciplines of construction, and we’re growing, flourishing and stepping into leadership positions. I also see more and more young women entering the field, with many of them participating in construction management or engineering programs at universities or entering trade schools. That’s a great thing for this industry, where there are so many opportunities across a variety of skills.
Gee: The change I have noticed the most is the growth of the number of women in higher-level positions in the industry. There have always been women in the industry since I started out but the number of women in high-ranking positions has stood out to me the most. It’s encouraging because it shows that this industry is a place where you are rewarded for your talents. Gender is not a deciding factor in how far your career can go. The sky’s the limit if you want to keep pushing toward your goals, whatever they may be.
Mayer: When I started in construction, job sites were dominated by inappropriate work behavior such as pornography displayed on walls, crude graffiti and to a lesser extent behavior that was deliberately intended to demean women—for instance, cat calling. Fortunately, the industry has come a long way, and I only see this kind of behavior very rarely now. I see some women in the trades, but there is still a very large gender gap. I think that is a missed opportunity for high-paying jobs. I hope that all stakeholders in construction will aggressively try to recruit and include women moving forward.
What is your advice to women wanting to get into construction?
Barsoum: Be confident, be strong and be professional. Be confident in who you are and what you know, and even in what you don’t know. Don’t assume that you have to have all the answers.
Fox: My advice would be to always be true to yourself and find your own path. And never be afraid to ask questions, because if you do you will learn something new every day.
Gee: I would say go for it! It’s a great industry with a lot of talented women and men. There are still some people out there that may not know there are so many women in the industry, so it is important to show this as this is an avenue for women to have successful careers and to put your mark on the industry.
Mayer: Join us! I have never regretted taking my career in the direction of construction and I can’t imagine that anyone would. There are always exciting new challenges and new people to get to know. This is a career path that is for people who get their energy from getting things done. It’s very satisfying to participate in the construction of any building and when you apply yourself to the work, you can really build amazing things.