Breaking Glass Ceilings with Women in Construction [Interview]
Posted on 02/25/21 By Brittany K. King
Architects Ellen Dickson and Karla Smalley talk gender roles, career growth, and their Lorman webinar.
When you think of male-dominated industries, there’s a good chance construction comes to mind. The physically demanding labor needed on a construction site is often associated with maleness and masculinity.
But Ellen Dickson and Karla Smalley are working hard to break down those stereotypes.
I had the pleasure to talk with both Ellen and Karla about their architecture firm Bailey Edward, career inequalities, and the current state of women in construction.
Be sure to check out their webinar, Advancement of Women in Construction, sponsored by The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC).
Tell me about Bailey Edward. What are your core mission and values?
Ellen Dickson: Bailey Edward is a woman-owned business focused on trying to make the world a better place for people and communities through what we call integrated, responsive design.
That means that we have a complete team working together and responding to not only the functional needs, but also the softer needs of a community or an organization.
We recognize the needs of the people and places in the planet, and we solve problems and improve the lives of others through conscious building and insightful and sustainable solutions.
We have three office locations: in Champaign, Fox River Grove, and Chicago. We work throughout the Midwest and have a very diverse project portfolio.
I'm the majority owner and the original founder of the company and the other major owner joined me about a year and a half in.
[Bailey Edward originally] started in the back of my house, just me and my dog, Gus.
What inspired you to start your own firm?
ED: There was a recession back in 1991 that really hit the industry hard. [The firm I worked for] put us on two days a week of work and said, “We think you can go to unemployment to pick up the remaining amount.”
That didn't materialize, so I started to find outside work. Then all of a sudden, they wanted us back five days a week.
This was probably the first glass ceiling I experienced.
I said, “Hey, you have me organizing all of the staff members. I'm assigning projects to people. I'm doing a lot of stuff. I know you can't give me more money, but can you just give me a new title?” And they said no.
I ended up leaving the position and starting the firm without any business plan, without any goals or intentions.
I kind of got thrust into it and had to learn through experience how to run a business and make it last.
That experience has made it so that I'm always looking to make sure we can be a success. It also made me want to ensure that staff are successful, that they have a sense of where they want to grow so we can encourage it.
"I’m proud to see there are more women in the field and that it’s nearly 50/50 in terms of representation. We see that as a big victory. "
Tell me more about your day-to-day job functions as Managing Principal and Associate Principal.
ED: As Managing Principal, I oversee a lot of the strategic direction for the company which involves marketing, business development, staff, any of our strategic initiatives.
Karla Smalley: I get to participate in everything that Ellen just explained, but I am still active as a project manager. [I work on] some of our larger projects at the University of Illinois, and I still am project manager for many Champaign-based ones, as well.
ED: Karla usually oversees the majority of the project work that goes through the office. She manages a significant portion of that work.
KS: And as Associate Principal, I've also taken up my passions of teaching training and historic preservation. I love sharing that knowledge with people.
We've started an initiative where once a month we get everyone together and talk about their concerns and what their questions are on a particular topic. We’re trying to focus more on training and the development for our staff.
What is it like working in such a male-dominated industry? From your perspective, how has the industry evolved or progressed since starting your careers?
ED: That’s actually one of the myths we're going to try to dispel [in our course]. The industry was much more male-dominated when I started.
But as we look at statistics now, it's changed. I’m proud to see there are more women in the field and that it’s nearly 50/50 in terms of representation. We see that as a big victory and improvement.
I remember early on [in my career] I would go out to a construction site to tell the contractor what things weren’t right. [The men on site] would follow me around, offer to hold my bag, move ladders for me – all of those very gentlemanly things. Then they’d look at me in shock when I would say “you need to tear this out” or “this isn’t right”.
But I don’t see that as much anymore.
KS: When I started 25 or 30 years ago, I was the only female in my first office, other than the receptionists. And now I think we just have one male architect and everyone else is female.
We just hired two men interns [recently], but up until then it was an office full of females. I never imagined I would be in an office full of female architects and designers.
Early on in my career, I think I experienced a lot of bias. But I spent a lot of time on the job sites now, and kind of like Ellen said, you go out there and they're all very gentlemanly.
Usually, we'll get new contractors in the area and they want to push it, but the ones we work with on a regular basis, especially here in Champaign, know that we know what we're talking about. They know we're not unreasonable.
We understand our craft. And they've gotten to a comfort level with that. They don't question when we tell them no.
In fact, a lot of times we get phone calls like “There's a wall going up and I don't think you're going to like it. Come out and look at it before they get it done”.
"I never imagined I would [work] in an office full of female architects and designers."
It’s interesting to hear you want to dispel the myth that construction is male-dominated. In 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that women make up only 10.9% of people working in construction. Do you think this statistic neglects other important industry jobs?
ED: Yes. I think that [that statistic] is more the case on construction sites where there really is a disparity and a lack of diversity.
The architecture profession is where we found diversity. We aren’t seeing an extreme disparity there. But when you go out onto a job site, I think you can see [inequity] almost instantly.
KS: In the last ten years, I think I've run across maybe one female electrician, two laborers, and probably one female operator. That's probably about it, I can't think of any female carpenters that I've met in the last ten years.
People may not consider the fact that supervisors, electricians, architects, and engineers are also part of the construction industry. What do you think contributes to the gender imbalance in on-site construction jobs?
KS: I also think there is a perception on the side of females that “I'm not ever going to be strong enough to pick that up” or “In 50 years when I get ready to retire, am I really going to want to do this to my body?”
ED: I used to have a female neighbor who was a tinner for the University of Illinois. You may see more diversity within institutions that are more open-minded to and support [gender inclusivity].
The industry can also be very familial in some respects. People often get into it because their father or grandfather did it.
KS: In a similar vein: my dad is a woodworker and when I began to express interest it, he [didn’t like the idea]. He supported me being an architect, but he knew woodworking was a tough job.
My love of construction brought me into architecture so that I could still be part of the industry. And [my dad] was fully on board with that.
ED: However, I understand from listening to women in construction that the biggest challenge they have is on-the-job sexual harassment and that there are not enough ways in the construction industry to deal with this or take it seriously.
Your course agenda covers a lot of important topics, but some key words that stuck out to me were education, collaboration, and success. How do you work to apply these values at Bailey Edward?
ED: Karla has been a key part in that education. She's also an example of working towards success to give people the chance to be a leader.
We take a very structured view of what's working, what needs to be included, what's missing, as well as people's education or experience and how can we provide [education] in and around our projects.
We’re very deliberate and purposeful about planning out people's success.
KS: Bailey Edward definitely supports. We give time off for people to do continuing education. We send out opportunities for continuing education. There's a monetary allowance that each employee can use to continue their education.
We also support our junior staff who are working towards licensure by buying some of the things that may be a little cost prohibitive, like Black Spectacle, and giving them incentives to pass those exams.
[Assisting] financially is important. It shows that Bailey Edward does put an emphasis on education and that it’s important to us. I think it's important to everyone that works here.
"I want first and foremost for people to pay attention to where the real inequities are in their organization or industry."
Who do you think would benefit from attending your course? What do you want your attendees to walk away with?
ED: I want first and foremost for people to pay attention to where the real inequities are in their organization or industry. For architecture that’s in leadership roles.
I don't think we have enough women in leadership roles, whether it’s ownership in a company or being in charge of specialties or divisions.
The other inequity is an actual licensure.
One of the benefits for me when I left that company in 1991 was the fact that I was licensed. For me, to be licensed is the ability to be independent and the ability to take care of yourself.
People need to get licensed so that they can bring value to the company. It’s an achievement and the last level of your education. And it's a safety net as far as I'm concerned. That’s the kind of success I want people to have.
The people who will benefit [from this course] will first be individuals. They can start to ask or demand for the same kind of support to get themselves leadership roles or to get licensed or the strength to ask for what needs to be fixed.
The other is business owners, who can learn how to do the things that [Bailey Edwards has] done so that they can retain staff and have a happier staff.
[The course] has bits for the individual and it has bits for business owners.
What parting words do you have for women in the industry?
ED: One of the things that I'd like people to understand is that they need to be an advocate for themselves. They can't expect things to happen just because it should happen.
KS: There’s going to be roadblocks – whether you’re male or female, there will be roadblocks.
Hurdles are put in place for a reason. Not everyone is going make it as an architect. There are hurdles that everyone has to jump over.
But there’s that sense of achievement when you do get to the end and can say “I did every one of those hurdles and I got it. I'm done. I can do this.”
There are always going to be challenges. It’s just understanding that you have to buckle down and do it.
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