Women in construction make up less than 10 percent of the construction industry, according to the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), but between 2010-2018 the number of women in construction increased by 37 percent. However, many construction companies still lack female employees and seeing a female construction worker on a job site is still a rare occurrence. That’s why Jacobson & Company, a construction contractor specializing in interior systems, stands out among its competitors.
At Jacobson, 55 of its 500 employees are female. Furthermore, 32 of those women work in the field. Notably, this represents one of the largest percentages of women working for a union construction contractor in New York City. According to Executive Vice President Patrick Oates, Jacobson began actively recruiting women about 10 to 15 years ago.
“We thought it was important to bring more diversity to Jacobson & Company. We think diversity brings an element of new ideas and a fresh perspective for the company,” Patrick said.
He’s not far off. According to one study by Boston Consulting Group and the Technical University of Munich, higher levels of diversity in management positions contribute to increased innovation revenue (“The Mix that Matters,” 2017). The idea that diversity helps breed innovation and increased productivity is not new, but on construction job sites, where physical labor is demanding and strict deadlines are king, it can be hard to convince companies that women also belong.
“I think that size becomes an issue. At first glance you see some giant 6-foot guy who’s 250 pounds and you already know what you can use him for. Sometimes, they see a woman who’s 5 feet tall and 130 pounds and they’re wondering what they can do with her,” Zari Esaian, Local 926, a construction estimator for Jacobson, said. “But what you can do with her is framing and you can invest in that person as a layout person – being short to the ground is advantageous. Take each person on a case by case basis.”
Investing in women is something Jacobson does well. Local 926 member Kieli McKoy has been a union carpenter since 2012 and is currently training to become a forewoman.
“I am running a small crew of workers. I am in charge of the punch list, tracking and documenting labor and materials, and making sure everyone’s doing what they need to be doing and that the job is getting done efficiently,” Kieli said.
Before joining the New York City District Council of Carpenters, Kieli worked for a school bus company making $10 an hour. Disaster struck when Kieli’s husband passed away suddenly leaving her as a single mother struggling to find a way to provide for her family.
“Once I joined Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) my whole life changed. I got accepted into the carpenters union and I’ve been working ever since,” she said.
On average, women in the U.S. earn 81.1 percent of what men make. But in the construction industry, the gender pay gap is significantly smaller, with women earning on average 99.1 percent of what men make, according to NAWIC.
Second-year apprentice and Local 157 member Nora Vega agreed that the carpenters union changed her life for the better. Nora also entered the union through Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW). NEW is one of the few pre-apprenticeship programs that focuses specifically on women looking to enter the trades.
“I knew that I wanted to do something with my hands, but I couldn’t find what career to follow so I decided to attend NEW, our pre-apprenticeship program, which provides the resources and the training so that you can be a trades woman and be successful long-term,” Nora said.
Nora is currently working both on her tools and as a project coordinator for Jacobson
“You always hear Jacobson is great for women. It’s a company that will allow you to be on your tools and learn this trade inside and out, so if you are someone who is willing to put in the work and willing to learn, Jacobson will always give you that opportunity,” Nora said. “Carpentry is for anyone. It doesn’t matter your gender, doesn’t matter your color, if you love this trade, if you love construction, there is a place for you.”
Part of what has made Jacobson so successful at recruiting and retaining women, according to Patrick, are the women themselves. Coming into a male-dominated industry, many women feel the need to go above and beyond in their roles and training in order to prove themselves. They strive to master what they do in order to be indispensable.
“The women who stick around are some of the best all-around carpenters that I’ve ever seen,” Zari said. “If women are in this business, it’s because they really want to be in this business. A lot of the women decide wholeheartedly this is what they want to do. It isn’t happenstance. It isn’t because they didn’t have any other options. They really want to be there. They’re hungry for it and they’re really motivated and with the proper investment I think companies will get a great career out of them.”
Another motivator for women in the trades has been the camaraderie and sisterhood that surrounds them when they join. Nora originally began her career in stage carpentry and considered joining the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union, but after experiencing the solidarity among female carpenters, she knew that the carpenters union was right for her.
“I can honestly say that if you don’t have the sisterhood you won’t succeed. These women have been in the trade for 20 years, 30 years, and they’re willing to pick up that call if you have a work question,” Nora said. “I am a very big advocate for sisterhood so that we can help the future of this trade and increase the number of women in the field.”
When it comes to the future of women in the trades, many of the Jacobson women expressed the desire to help other women succeed in the business.
“I want to be that trailblazer for everyone … so other foremen or managers see, like, hey, if Kieli can do it, I’m sure other women can do it, too. That’s my purpose…to set that example,” Kieli said.
While strong, outspoken women are required to ignite change in any industry, women can’t do it alone. It takes effort and commitment on all levels, from workers to company executives, for a lasting change to take effect. And Jacobson is an excellent example that those lasting changes are the catalyst for positive results.
“Having women in our workforce here has absolutely made us more successful,” Patrick said. “We not only seeing talented women working in the field with her tools and as tradespeople, we’ve also seen women rising to the top as leaders, and they’ve excelled at that.”
As the construction industry continues to figure out challenges like productivity and labor, there is a growing space for women to enter the field. It’s not just being seen as equal on the job — female leaders are making strides and having a big impact on the industry and companies are taking notice. As Jacobson continues to make greater strides on their sites employing more and more women, now is a prime time for other companies to follow their lead.
When asked about what she would say to construction companies who don’t want to hire women, Kieli said, “You’re missing out on a great opportunity to expand your business, to grow. It’s 2020. We’re here, we’re not going anywhere, we’re strong, and we’re ready to make a difference in his industry.”