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Building Authority: HOK Women Prove Knowledge and Skill Trump Gender on the Job Site

Women are often outnumbered more than 10 to 1 on construction sites. Today female construction administrators with HOK are creating new narratives across the globe.

At HOK, women in different design roles and with varying degrees of experience are involved in construction administration, working on-site both full- and part-time to help guide projects to completion. For Women’s History Month, six of the firm’s on-site managers share their favorite things about construction, what it is like being a woman on a job site and their advice for women who want to join the field.

Julie Steele
Senior Design Professional / Washington, D.C.

On-site experience: 12 years

Favorite thing about construction: I enjoy solving a variety of problems of varying complexity and find it particularly rewarding to see solutions implemented almost immediately. I learn daily from owners, users and tradespeople as we work through the many issues that come up. I have also gained an appreciation of the challenges the contractor faces in maintaining the project schedule while managing the work of their subs.

On being a woman on a project site: Sometimes it takes a few interactions before each new team member comes to realize that I’m knowledgeable and capable. But after they see the value I can add, it is fairly easy to work together as a team. It can be more challenging as a woman when I have to persuade the contractor to do something they don’t want to do.

Advice for women in design who want to be more involved with construction: Don’t be afraid to try construction management. Ask for opportunities to build both your skills as a manager and your understanding of the work in the field. It is valuable training for you and benefits the firm as you constantly improve your design details.

Jamila Valero
Project Manager / Los Angeles

On-site experience: 12 years

Favorite thing about construction: I love experiencing the tangible results and having a sense of true ownership on a project. Being able to actually walk through and inhabit the very spaces I took a role in envisioning, sketching, drawing and coordinating is so gratifying. Watching that progress turn into a completed project that matters to people in the community is one of the most rewarding parts of a construction job.

On being a woman on a project site: In a predominantly male industry, I have definitely had to be resilient and have a thick skin. This can sometimes be intimidating, but at the end of the day, knowing what I’m talking about, not second-guessing myself and being confident in what I know gains a different respect from all sides of the table. In what can sometimes be a very confrontational and stressful work environment, being able to listen and be direct while handling situations delicately is a real asset.

Advice for women in design who want to be more involved with construction: Don’t give up and don’t back down from your decisions, but keep setting your sights high while being humble and keeping the big picture in mind. Listen to others and communicate effectively. 

Lindy McAray
Senior Design Professional / Chicago

On-site experience: 3.5 years

Favorite thing about construction: No two days are the same—a problem you never would have anticipated can occur or a new phase of construction could be completed. It’s also the craziest thing to see your final building on Google Earth or Google Street View!

On being a woman on a project site: The project manager and project architect on my first construction project were both women, so it hasn’t been a rarity to be a female architect on a site for me. No matter what your gender, you will be an effective project team member if you prioritize problem solving, provide answers in a timely manner and commit to the design intent.

Advice for women in design who want to be more involved with construction: If there are any projects in your office being built, ask if you can shadow the design team while they are out there. Once you’re on site, ask questions. There is so much to learn out there that will affect your future design thinking and your ability to communicate with contractors and consultants.

Fariba Sajadi
Senior Designer / Toronto

On-site experience: Over 20 years

Favorite thing about construction: It provides me with an opportunity to develop my creative side, my practical side, my cost-cutting side and my extravagant side. I like that I am encouraged to find my own answers and develop my own path. I’ve also developed so many skills for both my life and career.

On being a woman on a project site: I’ve learned that it is a position of power and you need to be ready to carry the load and enjoy being in charge. It’s not for people who do not like pressure or heavy responsibility, but the rewards are great when you manage a team that works well together and completes a successful project.

Advice for women in design who want to be more involved with construction: It’s important for women to be involved in construction: you can use your innovation instinct, your common sense and your engineering skills with stunning effect.

Emily Louchart
Senior Interior Design Professional / Kansas City

On-site experience: Over 10 years

Favorite thing about construction: Seeing design work and ideation become a reality. On large-scale projects, it is humbling to see the organization, people and overall effort it requires to complete a project.

On being a woman on a project site: The single best thing to do is be confident in what you know and be humble enough to know that you don’t know everything. I think a lot is changing on-site, and you’re seeing more women in all disciplines. Communication in the field is evolving, so all parties are leveraging technology and recognizing the value in utilizing the vast array of available tools to get information as quickly as possible, which inevitably involves a diverse array of people in their careers.

Advice for women in design who want to be more involved with construction: There’s nothing stopping you from doing it. I think all architects and designers should be a part of construction administration is some fashion. Understanding how things are actually built and how other trades read or interpret your drawings and design intent is invaluable experience that makes each of us better designers. 

Helen Molton
Senior Architect / London

On-site experience: 36 years

Favorite thing about construction: I like seeing things I have detailed being constructed and then put to use. I find it most interesting to see how structures have been constructed in the past—to peel back the layers. This aids the understanding of the building and then informs the future work, so it’s invaluable.

On being a woman on a project site: It can be a challenge to be taken seriously. I was once told by a contractor that he was used to working with “proper” architects. I think he meant men!

Advice for women in design who want to be more involved with construction: Be yourself. Don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know the answer. Communicate clearly. Respect others’ points of view. Put your heart into the work and be prepared to work hard against the odds.

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