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A Hand Up: Women's Network to Increase Mentorship


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Holly Cindell, a project executive at Lendlease, and Sarah Carr, Vice President, Education Services at McCarthy Building Cos., first talked about forming a networking group for women in construction operations in 2012. Their experience mentoring each other inspired them to enable more woman-to-woman networking. The result is Women in Construction Operations, or WiOPS, a group for networking and mentorship that aims to help more women succeed.

Cindell was in the construction industry for 20 years before she began working with Carr at McCarthy. During her first two decades, a male boss mentored her. Then she met Carr.

“For the first time in my career, I was in the room with a woman who had a higher position than I had,” recalls Cindell. 

“For the first time in my career, I was in the room with a woman who had a higher position than I had,” recalls Cindell. “My relationship with Sarah is one that works both ways—maybe mentorship changes as you get older. I know I can call Sarah and say, ‘I don’t know what to do here,’ and I’m going to get an honest response.” 

Carr had never had a mentor before she met Cindell. She says she kept her head down and worked hard to get where she wanted to go. The casual back-and-forth with Cindell opened her eyes to what it meant to have confidential advice from someone with a lot of experience in the industry. This inspired her to think about what a robust women’s networking group might look like. 

About 150 people attended a January 2013 event, which was held to gauge interest in the idea. Since then, the Los Angeles chapter has grown to 600 women who meet on a quarterly basis for educational programs and informal conversation. A second chapter has recently launched in Northern California.

“WiOPS has opened a whole new world of relationships and networks that I didn’t have,” Carr says. In addition to the advantages of having one-on-one advice, what she loves about WiOPS is the chance of giving back. She likes helping other women who want to come into the construction industry and get through the things she had to deal with on her own.

A group like WiOPS not only attracts women to construction, but also helps them stay. 

A group like WiOPS not only attracts women to construction, but also helps them stay.  

Cindell says that men have established ways to pass information to junior men in their profession that have tended to exclude young women. 

Moreover, women need a different sort of encouragement than men. For instance, men feel qualified for promotions way before women do, according to Cindell. 

Cindell says she talks to young women who often think they need one more year before they go after a certain job. On the other hand, their male counterparts already believe they’re prepared, without the extra experience. Cindell might then encourage a young woman to go ahead and apply. 

“It’s a change in mindset of how we approach things,” explains Cindell. “Sometimes, we want to make sure we really know everything, so you just have to deal with that a little bit differently.” 

Carr says that in their discussions at WiOPS meetings, “we’ve seen a ton of questions about work-life balance. So many of these young women are moving up in their careers, but they’re also ready to have a family, which is a huge topic.” 

However, across careers and cultures there is more work-life balance than there ever has been before.

“I think there has been a slow recognition (of the need for this) in construction, which is still very male-driven,” says Cindell. 

“I think there has been a slow recognition (of the need for this) in construction, which is still very male-driven.”  

When young men come forward and say they want to take family leave, that opens the door for women to do the same.

“It’s the demand regardless of gender that’s creating that recognition and cutting a little slack,” says Cindell. 

Nevertheless, if a woman doesn’t have a partner committed to the value of her career, having a family can often be a setback. 

During WiOPS’ chapter meetings, they focus on technical education, such as going to a subcontractor to learn how to set tile or do electrical wiring. The Los Angeles chapter has an annual golf event and throws in an artsy event now and then. The point of every gathering is to give women a chance to talk to each other and find mentors. Beyond this natural method, Cindell and Carr are considering trying an app to match mentors and mentees. 

They emphasize that it's not just women with three-to-five years in their careers that need advice. People who have been in the profession for decades can still learn plenty. The younger professionals may teach them about new technology, for instance. 

People who have been in the profession for decades can still learn plenty. 

“You really find the relationship going both ways,” Cindell says. “It helps some of the people who did not come up with the technology to get up to speed.” 

Cindell and Carr are encouraged that the construction industry is beginning to acknowledge some of its unconscious bias against women and offering training to uncover this. All the publicity around the #MeToo movement, bias in Hollywood and in the tech industry “is getting the conversations started, which is a step in the right direction,” Cindell says. “It takes more than just the woman’s voice to get what’s been a traditionally male industry to truly recognize that you’re going to get better value with diversity.” 

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    This is a great read! Can you tell us how this differs from strategies used by other companies in the area like J2 Commercial Development? They seem to offer construction services at http://www.j2commercialdevelopment.com which align with these trends.
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