When it comes to diversity in architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) fields, the industry norm is more talk than action. It may surprise you to learn that in construction, women make up only 9% of the workforce, with fewer than 3% serving in a managerial or professional capacity.
Two inspiring leaders, Peggy Newquist and Michaelann Agoranos, both principals at Constructing Opportunity, are tackling this issue head on. They’ve built a business around leadership development and mentoring programs, diversity awareness, and people skills training. While their training programs are most decidedly not just for or about women, the fact is their work shines a light on what it takes to increase the number of women in our field.
I had the pleasure to sit down with Peggy and Michaelann to discuss the state of affairs and how both employers and employees can step up to advocate for awareness and change. I learned a lot from our conversation, and I hope you will too. I encourage you to connect with them and me to continue the dialogue.
Jackie d’Escoto (JD): To start, I’d love to hear what your paths were into a career in the construction and engineering arena.
Peggy Newquist (PN): I didn’t have a lot of direction in high school, and my physics teacher suggested I might look into engineering. Why not? It sounded good to me! My first year of college, we were introduced to all the different schools of engineering. Construction engineering offered a summer job, so that was all it took. After graduation I served in a variety of jobs in construction and the private sector, including 20 years at McDonalds building out restaurants. Ultimately, I moved into a training role and achieved a master’s in construction management.
Michaelann Agoranos (MA): In my late 20s I went back to school for an architecture degree, but I realized that I wasn’t entirely happy sitting and drawing up plans, I wanted more interaction with people. While at McDonalds, I got an offer to do a pilot program that allowed me to spend one day a week in the field on a construction site, and I loved it. I worked my way up to leading teams, working on both design and construction over 20 years. The idea to start a training business was something Peggy and I had talked about for a long time, and the timing was right. It’s a great way to marry my love of construction with my passion for training.
JD: What sort of training were you conducting at McDonalds?
PN: McDonalds is known for its operational training but needed help within real estate and construction. We were taking skilled technicians and putting them in charge, but they needed management skills to transition. We created a leadership program to identify and train high potential staff; it relied on a combination of picking the right people and then giving them the tools to feel more confident they could succeed.
JD: The AEC industry has a reputation for not being welcome to women. Do you see evidence of that in your role?
PN: It really depends on who you work for. Some companies recognize that the landscape has changed—not just for women but for all minorities— and recognize that they need to change as well. Others are more old school. It’s very trendy to say you support women in construction, but there’s a lot of talk in some companies and no action. With the huge labor shortage, companies that figure it out will win the talent war.
There’s a business value to becoming more enlightened. The industry doesn’t do a bad job at attracting women, but they flee in droves at middle management. The industry isn’t known for being super flexible. We focus on helping women get past that hump by identifying mentors and asking for the honest feedback they need to get ahead.
JD: So how can you tell if a company takes diversity seriously?
MA: You really have to dig and do your homework. Look at Glassdoor, and talk to past employees. Ask if you can talk to people who work there now. Ask what their approach is to continuous learning and supporting diverse teams and evaluate if it feels like just words on a page.
PN: We really encourage young women to start networking early and often. The best way to find out about a company is to know someone there. My best insights about companies come from women I’ve connected with through industry associations like NAWIC (National Association of Women in Construction). I can call and ask, ‘What really goes on there?’
Get out there. Make alliances. Build informal networks. Talk to people willing to give you the truth. You can tell a lot about a company by how they treat subcontractors, like if they pay them on time and treat them with respect.
JD: So networking is one way to determine the true diversity that exists in a workplace; what are other benefits to networking?
MA: There are so many opportunities to network at every level, from tradesperson to business owner. Particularly for women who aren’t naturally inclined to network, sometimes it can feel daunting. Women in underrepresented industries sometimes feel like they have to compete against each other, but other women can be your best allies and resources.
PN: We wrote a blog [link] about making it part of your legacy to build the tribe. You don’t have to like everyone you work with, but you do have to be able to do business with people. It’s not about being liked, it’s about being respected and being a valuable partner.
JD: What skills do you develop in your training programs?
MA: We bring a strong passion around gender awareness and creating a more diverse workforce in the industry. For companies, it’s not just about attracting more diverse talent, it’s about growing and retaining that talent. You have to train everyone at the same time so you have a diverse and respectful workforce.
PN: There’s a perception that Constructing Opportunity only trains women. We have a curriculum for everyone. We recently developed a foreman leadership training program for a client who noticed that first time crew leaders were struggling. Our programs teach everyone how to be better leaders by strengthening what you’re already really good at and mitigating your weaknesses.
MA: We also stress that ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get.’ Many people in positions of authority make decisions based on assumptions. For example, they might not offer a promotion to a working mother if they presume she won’t want to travel. Companies have to let that person decide what’s best for them.
JD: Do you think that the #metoo movement has led to more positive discussions about gender equity?
PN: We talk about it in our sessions. One woman who is a Vice President of a large construction company was told by a male client that he couldn’t have lunch with her unless she brought a male colleague. Are you kidding me? We understand people are uncomfortable. We have to create discussion around these topics.
MA: Regardless of gender, we can and should demonstrate respect for each other.
JD: I agree. If you prove you’re competent and show respect, you have earned the right to be respected. Let your voice be heard.
PN: We have to remember that most people are not malicious, they may just be blind to what’s going on. Women have a responsibility to speak up. If you’re in an environment where you’re afraid to speak up, or whatever you say gets passed over, you might want to reconsider if you’re in the right place. You don’t have to change the world, you just have to change your world.