The YPO Global Chief Executive Gender Equality Survey, conducted in partnership with the Financial Times and the United Nation’s HeForShe initiative, sheds light on gender parity in business through the journeys both women and men take to the corner office. 

The survey reveals that only 5% of CEOs are women, and it takes them longer to achieve that position. Having more women at the helm results in overall equality in the company with 43% more gender diversity on boards and in senior management as compared to 26% in male-run businesses. Additionally, findings show 20% of women face issues related to preconceptions and other biases as compared to only 9% of men. 

For the construction industry, these statistics are amplified and the roadblocks significant for women seeking the C-suite. 

Karolina Callias is the Chair of the Board at Yawal Group, an aluminum construction and extrusion family business in Poland. As a second-generation female owner, one of her greatest challenges in diversifying her workforce for long-term growth when women represent just 10% of her employees and the current labor shortage isn’t helping. She’s faced severe problems attracting and retaining female talent to the company.

“Women are the main decision-makers in purchasing the windows and indoor products that we are selling,” Callias says, “yet women are not represented in the makeup of most construction firms.” She says her peers in Europe and North America recognize the need for more diversity, but the challenge is great. “Change must come from the top. The quality of leadership matters.”

Rethinking business as usual 

Tim Coldwell, President of B-corp certified Chandos Construction, is contributing to change in the Canadian construction industry. He has implemented inclusive organizational design principles and is in the process of setting goals specifically to increase women in leadership roles.

“One of the things we’ve done as an organization is to consciously move to an inclusive management structure. We don’t have a C-suite.” 

Coldwell’s management team is made up of more than 30 people, and while he admits it can be a little messy making decisions, there is a broader cross section of perspectives at the table with 35% of the team being women. 

“If it were not for women being at the table, contributing to the conversations or providing leadership, we would not have accomplished many of the great things that we’ve done as an organization.”

Coldwell stresses the importance of having teams not only execute strategic plans but also ensuring they play an integral part in designing those plans — a dynamic many leaders can miss. Chando’s company culture is much more grassroots than a top-down traditional business environment. “We no longer go to the ‘mountain top’ with our board, attend a workshop, and come up with a strategic plan for our team. That’s not how the world works.” 

They are also moving toward equal representation of women and  men on their board to better position women for important strategic decisions and conversations. 

Sparking conversations internally

Leveling, or flattening the management structure is one way to bring women to the management table, but how do we begin that conversation internally and in the boardroom? 

“More leaders need to step up and take action, and this creates a type of peer influence,” says Dinal Limbachia, who leads the strategic partnerships of the United Nations HeForShe Initiative. Limbachia works with male heads of state and global CEOs to accelerate progress towards gender equality.

“When you see your competitors or your peers making these decisions, or taking steps to make improvements in these spaces, we start to see whole sectors and industries shift and change begins to happen.”

Callias believes businesses who want to promote growth and female representation in their companies will have to take a hard look at their values and re-evaluate them frequently. “We have a strategic conversation that we hold every quarter,” she says. “Working in conjunction with an outside association who provides us with data, we take a look at the key issues, the barriers women are facing and where we can see an opportunity for our company.” 

Building a pipeline of future women leaders

Among some of the roadblocks to women entering the C-suite according to the U.N. survey is self-discovery, with societal expectations that impede women from even considering joining the C-Suite. Where 41% of male respondents reported knowing very early on in their careers that they wanted to achieve a CEO spot, only 23% of women did.

Jade Chang Sheppard is the Owner and Founder of Gideon USA, a federal contractor that focuses on general construction, design-build, engineering, fuel systems services and environmental remediation in support of federal agencies at sites throughout world. She started the business more than 17 years ago with a dump truck, an asphalt paver and a roller. Sheppard mainly recruits from colleges making women who are in the construction management discipline a top priority. But she believes that developing future female leaders begins much earlier.

“It starts in grade school and starts with parenting. We really need to get to the point where girls don’t think it’s a big deal to be a superintendent or a construction manager, because women can do all those things.

Especially within construction, stereotypes still exist and for the most part, the profession is considered a man’s career. Dismantling this belief is often an uphill battle.

Coldwell believes the construction industry needs to do a better job of promoting itself. “I’m particularly passionate about raising awareness of careers in the construction industry, and that needs to start when kids are 13 or 14 years old. As a a society, we need to honor and respect people who do work with their hands, and it is not a career of last resort but an amazing opportunity.”

Sheridan Spivey is Operations Manager at the home renovation, technology startup Made Renovation, and the chair of Women at Made, an employee interest group fostering dialogue and empowering women in the company and broader industry.

She says there is a general lack of awareness of what opportunities are out there for women in the construction industry, so educating young women at an early age is key. 

“We need to change the way women think of themselves and their skillset. Males will typically go for a job even if they only have 30% of the qualifications for the role. As leaders, we need to empower women to go for it, try something new and they may find they really love it. When this happens, they will encourage other women to join, and the train gets going.”

Find your person

Mentor relationships between senior leaders and junior positions, whether through a formal program or not, make a huge difference in young women’s careers.

“When it comes to leadership, we’re not taught really how to be a leader. And if you’re lucky enough to have had good managers or role models, who have actively invested in you and taken the time to help you think through decisions, learn how to run a meeting or manage a team, it is an absolute game-changer,” says Limbachia.

Spivey encourages leaders to foster internships for young females interested in the construction industry and promote opportunities for women within their organizations to present, speak, and share in front of a group to help them strengthen their leadership skills.

“The more practice that we can give junior level employees or middle managers, the more likely they’re going to recognize that they can build upon their strengths and grow more confident as leaders.”

Become an employer of choice for women 

Especially in the construction industry, the challenge for many employers seeking to diversify is not in finding and keeping young professionals, but rather fostering and keeping mid-career professionals in their late 30s, 40s and 50s. Coldwell’s goal for his business is to see 40% of women in all roles in his organization by 2030. 

“Leaders have to be intentional around goal setting, regularly measuring the data and scaling their organizations appropriately.” He partners with headhunters to go find women to fill these roles and incentivize them. 

The key to keeping women is to provide mentorship programs, maternity and paternity leave, flexible work arrangements and extra support on job sites to help young mothers for example. 

“There’s no secret bullet. It’s about mentorship and allyship. As leaders we need to go about creating a people factory and growing them internally. That’s where our focus needs to be to keep and foster future women leaders.”

YPO Live Empowering Women into the C-Suite event was a collaboration of the YPO Construction and Women In Business Networks and the Next Generation (YNG) communities.