Mary Katherine Harbin, area manager for Tennesse-based Maymead Inc., broke new ground when she helped establish what may be the nation’s first all-female paving crew. As a woman who’s worked her way up the ranks for an asphalt construction services company, Harbin knows a thing or two about what it takes to survive and thrive in a male-dominated industry. We asked her to share her advice with other women thinking about pursuing a career in construction or paving.
4 tips for breaking into the industry
- Take the initiative. Go to a local construction company, bring your resume, fill out an application, introduce yourself and ask questions. Most construction companies in the U.S. are hiring, and trades are so vital in our country right now that the industry is incredibly competitive in pay and benefits.
- Understand the demands. Our industry can ask a lot of people in terms of hours and seasonal pushes. That can be a deterrent to some women. We may not be able to give you a set start time or end time. The weather may affect whether you need to get a babysitter. It’s important to recognize these challenges going in.
- Do your research. This is a great career path for women in open, progressive organizations, but not every company wholeheartedly welcomes women. Knowing where you’re applying and understanding the culture is key. Don’t be afraid to ask how many women are in operational positions. Are they all in the office? How many are in the field? How many are in upper management? The same questions apply for minorities. Is there someone at this company who sees the world through a different set of eyes?
- Don’t let age or inexperience stop you. You don’t have to be young or a body-builder to do this work. We’ve found women in their 40s and 50s make great employees because of the life experiences they bring to the job. Yes, it’s physically demanding work and you need to be in decent physical shape, but machines aren’t made the way they were 20 or 30 years ago. Today, you can push a button and very easily control the equipment with the technology that’s built into it.
4 tips for succeeding in the industry
- Be a sponge. There’s a shortage of people today who are willing to show up, ask questions and learn. Everyone thinks they have to be the smart guy or girl in the room right from the start. But we have so many experienced people in our industry who love what they do and are dying to pass on their knowledge. If you listen, observe and work hard, you can be as successful as you want to be.
- Understand the nuances. It’s not fair, but women in this industry have to walk a tightrope. There’s a fine line between being “too girly” and “too brash.” Men can be bold and aggressive, but women who act that way are called not-so-nice names. My advice is to be realistic about the double standard but don’t be negative about it. For me, trying to mimic the way the men deal with one another isn’t the way to be successful. I found a way to be myself, and you will too. Own who you are and be yourself, but understand how to do it in a way that fits in with the larger group. It’s an art.
- Grow into your role. As women, we’re seen as helpers, caregivers and peacemakers. Working outside these expected female traits is something most of us have to learn. Here’s an example: Our women’s crew recently had a utility team in their way on a state road job, and the state workers said, “We’ll ask them to move if you need them to.” Our forewoman’s response was, “No, that’s okay — we’ve got somewhere else we can work.” I guarantee you an all-male crew would have made them move, and she learned that she should have too. But for many of us that’s an unnatural response. You have to learn to do what’s right for your benefit and your company’s benefit.
- Find a mentor. As a woman, you will sometimes see things differently than your male counterparts, and that can be great for your company and for the industry. Still, it’s helpful to have someone to bounce things off of, someone who will be brutally honest with you about your ideas and performance. It doesn’t have to be a woman. When I was a young person in the industry, I had several wonderful mentors who were men.
Despite the challenges women in construction can face, Harbin believes it’s worth it. “The success you feel when you accomplish a task you may not have thought you could, the pride you feel when you help build something — those are incredibly rewarding feelings that many people outside our industry never experience.”
Looking for more career advice? Here are five tips that will serve you well regardless of industry.