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By Megan Headley
June 26, 2017
When James Brown crooned “It’s a man’s world” in 1966, he might as well have been singing about the construction industry today. There are perhaps few places where a lack of women is more glaring than the typical construction site.
“The [AEC] industry is still very stagnant in terms of a men to women ratio,” finds Gina Koert, principal, senior estimator and project manager for Shamrock Painting Inc., a Denver-based commercial finishing contractor. “I would say that 90 to 99 percent of the workforce is still men. I see more women in the design area of construction—architects and interior designers—but not as often in the field.”
Koert, like many women who grew up exposed to construction sites through their fathers’ work, had plans to follow a similar design-oriented path. Yet her journey toward an architecture degree took a number of detours that ultimately led Koert to the field and opportunities she encourages other young women to pursue.
That path may have been set in the ’80s, when Koert accompanied her father, Geno Tumbarello, to jobsites.
“My father has been in the industry since the 1970s,” Koert explains. “So as long as I can remember on the weekends—and I’m sure it’s not OSHA-approved these days—I would have a hardhat on.”
That early exposure to large commercial worksites launched a love of buildings that Koert planned to translate into an architecture degree. Instead, she wound up with a strong foundation in architecture and a business degree. Those skills, together with the estimating insight she gained working for her father’s company during summers home from college, served her in a career creating bid packages for the Washington, D.C. branch of the cost consulting company Faithful+Gould.
Koert did estimating on the State Department and U.S. embassies among other notable projects, and while she enjoyed the work, she found that something was missing.
“I wanted to come back to not only be in Denver but also to perfect a trade,” Koert explains. “When you work on the cost-consulting side, you really have to know a little bit about a lot of things. I wanted to hone my skill in one trade and be very proficient on that one.”
When Koert returned to Denver in 2005, she joined the company her father launched in the early ’90s. She came with a strong foundation, a work history built around high profile commercial projects, and estimating expertise. And she soon made a name for herself in her own right.
But back in the field, Koert found that it increasingly evident that the construction industry needs more women.
“I would say that women are still treated differently because of their gender,” Koert says. But, she adds, “A lot of it is perception.”
Part of the challenge of encouraging women to pursue the trades is that there simply aren’t many female role models being publicized in construction. “You see it from time to time at top construction companies on the preconstruction side or design side, but not in the field,” Koert says.
Moreover, Koert admits that she sees the stereotype frequently reflected in clients’ and colleagues’ reaction upon meeting her. However, she is quick to add that the people who are usually surprised to be working with a woman are “happily surprised.”
Being a rare woman in the field hasn’t been a hardship for Koert. It’s been a challenge, she says, which presents opportunity.
“Because there aren’t many women in construction, it differentiates you,” she finds. “You have this opportunity to stand out and shine.”
Because every area of the construction industry is seeking solutions to their skilled labor shortage, many groups are recognizing the need to encourage previously untapped labor sources to join them. And in doing so, those same groups are realizing that the women in their ranks can provide a fresh perspective to a diverse range of challenges.
For example, Koert was recently tapped to join the Board of Directors for the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America. “It was a good old boys club for a long time,” Koert says. “I rose to the top because they said ‘this is someone who has been in the industry a long time, knows the job, and brings a new perspective that we don’t see very often—so let’s make the most of it.’”
Koert emphasizes, “You won’t get anywhere by the fact that you’re a woman. You’ll get somewhere because you’re good at your job.”
She advises other women considering construction to test the waters and gain exposure through an apprenticeship. It’s a career she calls fun and rewarding—and it’s in need of more women.
“People are going more toward technology and not realizing that the trades their fathers and grandfathers did are becoming lost, and there’s a real need for it,” Koert says. What’s more, Koert, who is in her late thirties, sees women leaders in the construction industry passing their trades on to sons. “It’s one more generation that goes back to a very male-centric workforce,” she says.
Today’s construction labor challenges may be solved by more fathers—and mothers—encouraging their daughters to take to the AEC industry. In the meantime, Koert has a 4-year-old daughter with a linear mindset and a passion for building.
“If she wants to do this, we’ll encourage it,” Koert says. “Since I have that perspective, I won’t shut it down.”
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