When I arrived at the construction site, the “workman” I expected to find turned around and was a woman.
Susan Phillips works for Gateway Development Group, a company that is building a commercial and residential site along one of the busiest corridors in Yorktown Heights. At first I was surprised, but then I wasn’t. I, of all people, should not be one to fall prey to gender specific expectations for any job.
A lifetime ago when I was hired to market the then-relatively unheralded Culinary Institute of America, I looked around and found there were only three female students in a school with an enrollment of 1,000.
“Why are there not more women studying the culinary arts?” I asked the school’s president. Crusty old guy that he was, he responded, “Because it’s too hot in the kitchen, they are not strong enough to handle the stock pots and French chefs don’t like women in their kitchens!”
Oh wow, I thought. And this was a full decade after Gloria Steinem and Betty Freidan had made their mark. But, the fact of the matter is that years ago, kitchens of fine restaurants were still in the hands of French chefs and that indeed was their opinion at the time.
I decided to take action and arranged a cooperative promotion with Seventeen Magazine whose purpose was to demonstrate to young women that the culinary arts could be a good profession for women. Within a half dozen years the female population had grown to almost a third of the student body. Since that time, I’ve gotten a real kick out of seeing women in jobs that for years had been gender specific to men, such as building maintenance and road construction.
Phillips entered the construction industry by leveraging her banking experience and becoming a bookkeeper for a small contractor. From there, she worked for a larger contractor, then a larger one, increasing her responsibilities to site administrator.
“Instead of operating from the home office, I just love getting out to work in the field at a building site,” she said. “My work includes getting building permits, helping with approvals, budgeting with all the trades and getting them paid, assuring safety on the site and orchestrating anything else that is needed.”
Jim Carnicelli, Gateway’s vice president who oversees construction for the company, said women offer a different perspective to the industry.
“Susan brings great organization to our team, something that can be deficient in the field,” he said. “She is great at multitasking and making sure that everything gets done.”
According to Catalyst, a national non-profit organization focused on expanding opportunities for women in business, construction is one of the most male-dominated industries. Women currently account for less than 9 percent of the industry.
That makes Elise Hunnicutt a rarity. As sole proprietor of Pound Ridge Construction Corp., serving Westchester and Fairfield counties, she has been a contractor for more than 25 years.
“It was when I bought a small property in lower Westchester and worked with an architect and some trades to quietly, gently and slowly build a little ‘spec’ house,” Hunnicutt recalled of her foray into the industry. “I found that experience very rewarding because I could do something from beginning to end.”
Asked about the pluses and minuses of being a woman in construction, she responded, “It’s been a total plus in that most of my clients are discriminating homeowners looking for someone who will understand and even anticipate their needs. And, especially, they are looking for high quality workmanship and attention to details.
“Being a woman has set me apart in another way. When I’m working with a couple in building or renovating a home, I normally spend more time with the female and there’s a certain simpatico.”
In an interesting twist, I recently was invited to pitch a listing for a commercial building and when I arrived, the owner said that he thought it unusual to find a man working in real estate, a field he always thought was dominated by women.
Gosh, I thought, what’s that all about? Then I remembered that women are still very much in the majority in real estate sales, especially in the residential sector. I guess that means we guys have a few gender specific notions to overcome ourselves.
Bill Primavera is a Realtor® associated with Coldwell Banker, as well as a marketing practitioner and columnist who writes regularly as The Home Guru. For questions about home maintenance or to inquire about buying or selling a home, he can be reached at bill@PrimaveraHomes or called directly at 914-522-2076.