In one of his most popular ballads, the late soul crooner James Brown sang, “This is a man’s world.” And in male-dominated professions like construction and engineering, where in 2016 women made up 9 and 13 percent of the workforce respectively, Brown’s proclamation sounds credible on the surface.
But at Project Journey, the construction project at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, women play several key roles on the job site and at the management table. They are helping to design and construct two security checkpoint buildings and a 14-gate concourse that, when complete, will streamline passenger flow and provide a higher level of service for airline customers.
Bernadette Caparas and Britni Rhett are employed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees the project, and Claire Smith works for Turner Construction Company, the primary contractor. All are engineers who discovered a love for math and science and began to envision their career paths while sitting in their kindergarten classrooms.
“I always knew I was going to be an engineer or architect because I liked math and it seemed like a natural progression,” Caparas said.
“I have always loved math. I have always loved critical thinking. It’s like a magnetic force,” Rhett said. “I like the tangibility of it. It’s something you can watch in front of you and touch,” Smith added.
Project manager Hallie Burdin, also with Turner Construction Company, feels like she was destined for a career in construction after being raised in a construction family. “I guess it was fate that I got into construction,” Burdin said.
Now, the women find themselves working in positions at MWAA and Turner where their responsibilities include communicating with colleagues daily to coordinate work plans and progress, ensuring work meets design specifications, keeping the project on time and on budget and resolving any conflicts that may come up.
And when there is a job to do, the women perform the same way their male colleagues would. They come from behind the desk, put on their safety gear and make field visits.
“I’ve had to put on my steel toe boots, my yellow highlighter construction vest and my hard hat with my dress and go out on site and take care of business,” said Rhett. “Whenever duty calls, duty calls.”
Although studies show women who become engineers have a shorter tenure in the profession than men, these women have defied that trend. While each admits to facing obstacles like struggling to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts and establishing a work-life balance, they credit their employers for constantly providing opportunities to learn, grow and take on new challenges.
Caparas, Rhett and their colleagues agree that the key to growing the number of women choosing careers in engineering and construction is to encourage girls to explore their interest in math, science, and leadership at a young age. They also advise girls to get involved in organizations like the American Society for Civil Engineers, Construction Management Association of America, and Associated Builders and Contractors to identify internships and other networking opportunities.
Their advice for those new to the field ranges from being well rounded and finding a mentor to being fearless and jumping in head first. According to Burdin, the future looks bright for women working in engineering and construction. “Progress is going to continue to trend forward for women,” she said.
As women continue to make strides in these male-dominated fields, others will realize as James Brown did later in the song’s refrain, that even a man’s world “would be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl.”