Inside the Lives of Construction Moms

For every 95 guys on a construction site, there are five women. Construction work is a boys club.If you can break through, it’s a living…

Katherine Bowers of ponders over the lives of Construction Moms –

She can wrangle a forklift, swing a sledgehammer and drive a nail in three quick blows. Yet when Stephanie Hall, 40, walks onto a new job in her hard hat and Wolverine boots, she’s invariably mistaken for the site secretary. “I say, ‘Nope, I’m your new boss. Guess where you’re starting off today?’” quips the project manager for D.A.G. Construction in Cincinnati and mom of one. Still, she says, “I have to prove myself on every new job. You can see the looks that go, ‘Okay, it’s a woman—can she hack it?’” Wendy Beaver knows that look and has learned to ignore it, as well as the wolf whistles shot her way. The 40-year-old project engineer for Donahue Favret Contractors is now helping rebuild the downtown New Orleans Hyatt, its blown-out windows an enduring image of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath. Each morning, Wendy drives 30 miles to drop off daughter Hope, 10, at the nearest bus stop. Then she drives 45 miles in the opposite direction to the job site. But once there, she’s often so absorbed by work that she has to force herself to take bathroom breaks. The hotel is her firm’s biggest job yet, a powerful symbol of her hometown’s efforts to rise again: “It feels great to help bring this hotel back to New Orleans.” A Man’s World? A full 66 percent of our country’s employment is construction work—and not surprisingly, it’s a boys’ club. For every 95 guys on a construction site, there are five women. Because they’re facing down stereotypes, these women have to keep up. Always. “You carry your own tools; you do everything men do,” says Pat Walker, craft resource and safety manager for Welbro Building Corp. in Maitland, FL, and president of the National Association of Women in Construction Education Foundation. “I hate climbing ladders, but I do it anyway,” says the mom of three adult children. For Pat, Stephanie, Wendy and other moms, construction is a calling. It’s challenging, it pays well, and, yes, it’s cool. As in, See that? Mommy built that. Stephanie lives for those moments: while working on a new library in her town, she drove 4-year old son Shane by the project weekly so he could watch the structure rise. Wear Pink? Puh-leaze “It’s my favorite color, but I refuse to wear a pink hard hat,” says Wendy (though the shade can be useful—if a guy borrows her pink tape measure, it’s always returned.) But as Maura Hesdon, 34, Senior Project Manager for Shoemaker Construction in West Conshohocken, PA, asserts, you “don’t need to look butch. I look like a woman on the job. I have very long hair, and I wear earrings. I don’t wear makeup because I’m too lazy, but I would if I felt like it.” A No-Frills Workplace?Nothing’s cushy on a job site. Lunch? The roach coach. Gotta go? Portapotty’s over there—though this is one place without an endless ladies’ line. where to stash supplies? Your car. A dry shirt, clean socks, water, snacks and ibuprofen. Everyone has a towel, too, Pat says, great for wiping sweat, drying off after a rain shower and draping over the front seat when driving home in dirty work clothes. And it’s not just conditions that can be rough. Language is salty, tempers flare, people shout. “Men blow up, then they blow it off. They can be screaming and then your best friend ten minutes later,” says Roxanne Rivera, President and CEO of the Associated Builders and Contractors of New Mexico and author of There’s No Crying in Business. She ran her own construction company for decades, learning that “women couch what they say so they don’t hurt feelings, but men are blunt. That doesn’t mean it’s personal.” Vital to this job are a sense of humor and an ability to dish it out. “When someone calls me ‘honey,’” says Maura, “I say right back, ‘This is my name.’” A Decent Paycheck?In 2010, even with a continuing building slump, the mean wage for a laborer was $16 per hour (though, as in most fields, men still out earn women). Mastering equipment, rising to supervisor or learning a trade means earning significantly more. “We say, ‘the more you learn, the more you earn,’” says Pat. And many skills can be picked up on the job. Raises can come as often as every six months, fattening take home by $.75 or $1 more per hour. “It’s a good living,” says Maura, a single mom who owns her own home and is sole breadwinner for her daughters, Madison, 9, and Hannah, 6. “I’m proud of the lessons of independence I’m setting for my girls.” Yet Maura is quick to admit it’s tricky to balance the not-so-family friendly demands of the job with raising kids. Commutes to work sites are often long, shifts can start pre-dawn (when concrete is typically poured), and you can’t bring your kids to work on construction sites, ever. Problems often need immediate attention: after thieves stole the copper piping off her building, Stephanie spent a chunk of Christmas morning on-site. Still, there is flexibility. Don’t look for it in the employee handbook, but every mom we talked to agreed that once you prove yourself, you’ll be accommodated for family needs. When Wendy was assigned to the Hyatt project and worried about getting Hope to school, her supervisor said, “Don’t change her routine. Just get to the job when you can.” There’s genuine camaraderie because the focus is more on team achievement—getting the building up on time and under budget—than on pecking order. When something needs to be done, everyone pitches in, from the newbie to the superintendent. Maura is the number three at her company, but when a 200-pound, 40-foot extension ladder needed to be hauled half a mile across a rooftop, her title didn’t matter. A male co-worker grabbed one end, and Maura hefted the other.