By Nan Nan Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly
Today, wearing power suits, women dominate certain industries. But not many are wearing hard hats.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2008, while women made up 34 percent of lawyers, 61 percent of accountants, and 79 percent of social workers, they made up only 8 percent of construction managers.
With so few women in construction, Asian women in construction are scarce.
“Asians, in general, are very rare in the construction field. Asian females are extremely rare,” said Susan Ulep, former assistant project manager for CM&D and a former project engineer at Skanska.
Most construction sites are rugged, with bulldozers rolling, jackhammers blaring, and dust flying. At first glance, they seem neither ideal nor appealing to most women.
Standing 4’11”, with long, wavy hair, Ulep described herself as “pretty much the exact opposite of what you’d think of when you think the word ‘construction.’ ”
Like Ulep, other Asian females in construction stand out.
Working in a place flooded with men, Asian females in construction face many challenges. While physicality alone raises doubts in terms of performance, onlookers wonder how well these women handle the long hours, extreme environment, and having so many male coworkers.
However, some have made it. They have proven that, with hard work and persistence, Asian women can survive, and even excel, in a line of work dominated by men.
Having genuine interest
Requiring long hours and hard work, the construction field can be exhausting, even for men like Skanska project manager Vi Nguyen.
“The construction industry has very demanding hours, deadlines, and the job constantly moves geographically,” revealed Nguyen. “This career path is demanding. [It] can be hard on the family at times.”
Ulep’s attraction to the field began at a young age. “During my last quarter at the UW, I got accepted into the UW Design/Build program in Mexico. … We helped to design and build a women’s health clinic for the residents there.”
“We worked along with the townspeople and participated in all stages of the construction process, from presenting our ideas entirely in Spanish to the community, to tossing and laying bricks with the townspeople,” said Ulep.
“This experience opened my eyes to the construction industry and was a turning point for me. Rather than graduating that quarter [with a degree in architecture], I decided to stay in school for another two years to pursue additional coursework in construction management and haven’t looked back since.”
Like Ulep, Julie Matsumoto studied architecture in school, but she soon found that she had a greater chance of success in construction. Knowing that the field has few women, she still continued her pursuit.
“I realized that there were other opportunities in the industry that would allow me to work on building projects without being an architect,” said Matsumoto. “I did know that [the construction field] was male dominated. I think my expectation was that I wouldn’t be treated too differently and that if I worked hard and did a good job, then it wouldn’t matter what I looked like.”
Matsumoto obtained a Master of Science in Engineering with a focus on structural aspects. After years of hard work, she is nw thriving at KPFF Consulting Engineers as a project manager and just wrapped up the first phase of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Being one of the boys
Socializing at work is an important aspect of anyone’s job. Though outnumbered, these Asian women did not hide from happy hours and social gatherings. Instead, they put themselves out there as “one of the boys” and made great friends at work.
As “the only female on a 15-person team who worked in the jobsite office” and one of the only “five women to 100 men,” Ulep managed to befriend those in her age group.
Among her peers, Ulep even found someone she can look up to.
“One of my mentors was one of my peers who also had a similar educational background as me. … We had a lot of similarities and could easily relate with one another.”
Elaine Zhang, a Rutgers grad in Environmental Planning and Design who works in the solar construction field, also noticed that she “might be the only Asian female in my company.” However, Zhang used her positive attitude and outgoing personality to make many friends.
“I get along with most of my coworkers if not all, male and female. I’m invited to most work[place] social outings.”
According to Matsumoto, whose workplace currently has “approximately a three-to-one [male to female] ratio for engineers (excluding administrative/support staff),” she never felt alone.
“I have friends from work that are both male and female, Asian and non-Asian. I do not feel left out, or that there is a culture to exclude people because of their race or gender.”
Being treated differently
Even though the women socialize well with male coworkers, when it came to an actual construction job, they did receive different treatment.
“On the jobsite, I did feel like I was treated differently because of my gender at times,” said Matsumoto, “but not in a way that had to do with how competent I was at my job. … It was more just things like conversation topics. … Things that weren’t discussed out of respect (like dirty jokes or vulgar stories). … I was given a little bit of a break from ‘posturing’ that can occur between two men.”
For Ulep, the difference was starker.
“I definitely feel like I’ve been treated differently because of my gender. … There are generally 2 kinds of attitudes guys display toward women who work alongside them in the field: welcoming or unwelcoming. … Fortunately, most of the guys I worked with are great to work with. … Others can be jerks, and you can spot them pretty easily — they are uncomfortable to be around women and often make rude remarks.”
As one of the more welcoming men, Nguyen gave a male perspective to the matter.
“I believe in this modern day, females are treated equally, but guys do act differently (more respectful) when they are around women.”
“For the most part, I try to treat them like one of the guys,” said Nguyen. “However, at the same time, I find myself being more careful and trying to be more respectful of their emotions.”
Zhang, however, did not feel like she received different treatment, except for when the job got physical.
“When climbing up a roof hatch, I was asked if I was okay, and I was perfectly OK. Maybe I looked hesitatant.”
Michiko Hamada, an engineer at Schlumberger, also got extra attention when doing more physical tasks.
“Yes, sometimes I feel I am treated differently … good and bad. I’ve worked in two countries up to now … the U.S. and Japan. American boys treat you nicely, sometimes too nicely, since they are interested in you, in many ways. I had a time when I was working on the oil rig and doing some physical labor. It was so hot outside … the boys came and helped me right away; they wouldn’t have if I were a boy.”
The double standard
Everyone wants to get ahead at work and reach a higher level. However, is it harder for women? Double standards in the workplace have improved. But for some, double standards still exist.
When Ulep was asked if she felt it was harder for her to advance in a male-dominated field, she answered, “Yes, definitely. I had the same job title for several years, and some of my male peers who started out the same year and [at the same] level as me advanced to higher positions, even if our experience level was similar. It was disappointing to experience that.”
However, Matsumoto, Zhang, and Hamada did not feel the same way.
Matsumoto said, “I don’t feel like it’s harder to advance in a male-dominated field. … The people that work around me are intelligent and fair people, and [they] acknowledge the good work that I do regardless of my ethnicity or gender.”
“Gender doesn’t make much difference,” answered Hamada. “It is a matter of how much you can put on the table, how smart you are, and how much common sense you have.”
“It’s how capable I am, not what gender or race I am,” added Zhang.
Long days at work are manageable for someone without a family, but what about working mothers? When a woman in construction becomes a mom, does the field suit her new life?
“The construction industry is a tough field for working mothers,” revealed Ulep, who chose not to return to the industry after giving birth to her daughter. “The schedule is rigorous and usually involves 10- to 12-hour days, and work often continues after the day ends. As a new mother, I would find it extremely difficult to go back into the industry while I have a small child at home.”
Nguyen agreed, “If she is trying to be a full-time mom while working, then this would be a difficult field to be in.”
Zhang, Matsumoto, and Hamada, who haven’t yet started a family, seemed more optimistic.
“It depends on how busy the position is. I imagine being a mom and working at the same time, trying to fit everything into your schedule is hard,” said Zhang. “But if you want both, you find a way to make it work.”
“The construction industry, in my opinion, is less suitable for working mothers. … but I know several women who are in the construction industry and are successful at both their careers and family lives together,” said Matsumoto.
“You are always required to balance between family and work, but I believe it is possible in general. … I have a lot of friends who work and have families, I don’t see any problem,” said Hamada. “I believe it all depends on yourself. … I will definitely choose to keep on working as long as I can reasonably.”
Words of wisdom
For other women who want to enter and seek success in the construction field, the Asian women who have made it gave some sound advice.
“My advice is to work hard and be confident, but don’t be afraid to ask questions and learn as much as you can from the people around you. When I first started working, I was afraid that I would look stupid if I asked too many questions … like I didn’t know what I was doing. But as I got further into my career, I realized that asking questions is the best way to learn and grow, and that I should be less worried about what others think of me,” said Matsumoto.
“Anything depends on you. … There is no limit unless you set it yourself … no matter what industry you work for,” said Hamada. “Because there is always a first time for everything, and [a] first one to break the wall if there is [a wall].”
“If there is a mentor program at your school or work, take advantage of it. Seek out mentors who have careers that interest you, and ask questions on how to maximize your school or work experience,” advised Ulep. (END)
Nan Nan Liu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.